David Essex, musical theatre star turned cockney heartthrob for a generation of mums and grandmothers, is back on the West End stage leading a musical featuring a host of his greatest hits.
Essex’s gravelly voice – a touch strained with the inevitable encroachment of age – still delights the fans, but there is more to this new musical than just his crowd-pleasing, hat-tipping, star turn.
Set in an aging fairground, Jon Conway’s story tells of how owner Levi (Essex) is struggling to deal with the death of his wife, how Levi’s son Jack (Michael Pickering) aches to be taken seriously by his father and move the fair into 21st century, how local ‘businessman’ Harvey desperately wants to protect his daughter and how young love can be the most powerful force on the planet.
These are age-old, timeless themes – sons surpassing fathers, the pressure of parenting, the strains of aging – and they are almost too much to cram into two hours of stage time, especially when the production is trying to include as many of Essex’s hits as possible.
While the shoehorning is not as prevalent as in a busy Clark’s store on a Saturday afternoon, some of Essex’s best known songs seem added just to ensure they are there; Winter’s Tale becomes a prologue for the story, Rock On a moment of reminiscing for the good old days. Had there been a little less song squeezing, it might have been possible to dig further into characters which deserve a little more depth.
Essex delivers a reticent Levi, a sadness lurking behind most of his motives, while Timothy seems quite reasonable for a man with a thuggish henchman hanging on his every word. Pickering’s Jack is a likeable enough sort, yet not quite the dirty, scruffy lad Harvey fears is stealing his daughter’s heart, and Tim Newman as fairground worker Slow Jonny works hard as Jack’s best friend who lives up to his name.
The promotional material for the show promises a rollercoaster ride of a musical, and it is hard to argue with that. It flies through Essex’s hits faster than an Alton Tower’s crowd-puller, offering a few twists and turns along he way. I saw women in the front row waving their hands in the air, and yes, I even heard some screams.