I’ll admit to knowing very little about the pre-television career of Cilla Black; while I grew up watching her on Blind Date and Surprise Surprise, it was not until I was a lot older that I realised she’d been a singer before gracing our screens. Having not seen the ITV mini-series on which this musical was based (both written by Jeff Pope), I went into this show blind.
On reading in the programme that Cilla’s eldest son, Robert Willis, is executive producer, I felt we were in safe hands. Backed up by prolific, talented theatre director Bill Kenwright, I relaxed in the knowledge that my Tuesday evening’s entertainment was unlikely to be dull.
We meet Cilla, played hypnotically by Kara Lily Hayworth, as a young teenager in her bedroom pretending to be interviewed about her rise to stardom, and singing into her hairbrush. Hayworth captures that Cilla charm and spirit with ease. Throughout the performance we see that teenager grow and fulfil her dreams of becoming a Number One artist, while discovering the pitfalls of fame as well as the delights and difficulties of falling in love. I can’t even begin to describe the power of Hayworth’s voice; she was simply spectacular. But although the show revolves around Cilla, it is not just the talented Hayworth stealing the show. We are treated to brilliant musical tributes to The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Mamas and The Papas, and the Big Three. The show is a perfect blend of high energy pop hits that it would be difficult not to tap along to, mixed with the long-burning love story between Cilla and Bobby (a wonderful Carl Au) and the darker dramas surrounding Cilla’s manager Brian Epstein (brilliantly characterised by Andrew Lancel).
I found myself completely absorbed in the whole show. Smiling at the different high-profile characters - Michael Hawkins’ young John Lennon was as cheeky as you’d expect - as well as being impressed by the ability of the actors to transform from one big name star to another with ease. In particular, Alan Howell shone while playing both Gerry Marsden and a cantankerous Burt Bacharach with aplomb.
The three main roles (Cilla, Bobby and Epstein) provide the core of the show – the chemistry between Hayworth and Au is magnificent and highlights that wonderful deep love that Cilla and Bobby had, despite Cilla’s ambition and the trappings of life in the limelight. Lancel’s portrayal of Epstein is heart-achingly powerful. Again, I was previously only vaguely aware of Brian Epstein as a music mogul, but Lancel’s performance had me mesmerised and hungry to learn more about the life of this interesting, seemingly fragmented character.
While the audience were a little too reserved to get out of their seats and join in the dancing of the finale, there was certainly a lot of head-bobbing and seat-dancing going on. Hopefully the crowd’s enjoyment of the show came across to the hardworking cast in the thunderous applause and standing ovation that they eventually left the stage to.