Saturday, September 17, 2011

All The Fun Of The Fair @ The New Alexandra Theatre, Friday 16th September

Take one of the biggest sex symbols of the 70’s, add half a dozen genuine smash hit singles and set it all in the slightly seedy world of a failing funfair and you’ve got the recipe for one of the most enjoyable new musicals of the past few years. Of course there have been oodles of musicals based on existing greatest hits recently, ranging from Abba’s Mama Mia to Madness’ Our House, each one pretty much a readymade smash, just as long as the band or artist still has enough fans. Perhaps David Essex has been a little bit out of the public eye over the last few years hence, I’m guessing, his profile raising role as dodgy antiques dealer and silver haired lothario Eddie Moon in Eastenders. He’s got a genuinely impressive back catalogue of hits though (23 top 30 songs in the UK and a pair of number ones from the days when this actually meant something), many of which have made it into this incredibly likeable tale set in the fading glory days of the Great British funfair. Happily Essex has got some impressive form in the world of musical theatre too, having taken the lead in the West End production of Godspell in ’71, appeared in Tommy in ’73 and played Che in the debut run of Evita in ’78 before co-writing and starring in Mutiny in ’85. Not a bad CV eh? Add his traveller heritage (his mum, Olive, was an Irish traveller) and you’ve got the ingredients of something a darn sight more substantial than many of the recent back catalogue cash-ins.

A funfair’s musical gold as far as settings go, packed full of opportunities for some neat tricks (I loved the cup and ball sketch), great characters (gypsy fortune tellers, spivs and a runaway from a children’s home) and a bit of low rent glitz and glamour. Essex plays Levi Lee, a recently widowed funfair owner with a wayward son (shades of the Eddie Moon character in there in fact) and the plot’s the classic boy meets girl, girl’s dad ain’t too impressed...well, you get the picture. It’s Romeo and Juliet meets The Greatest Show On Earth meets Eastenders.

Essex was in great form. He’s always had a bit of a smouldering quality to his vocal which the passing years have mellowed nicely. He’s a natural actor too, not too theatrical and OTT, which is an easy trap to fall into in musical theatre. His brief It’s Gonna Be Alright interludes were subtle but genuinely moving. Clearly ladies of a certain vintage still have the hots for him too, cue much whooping from time to time, especially when he was talking about his character’s younger days “I had long black curly hair in them days”. I swear you could smell the oestrogen in the air.
The songs rarely felt shoehorned in and, given the setting, seeing the cast burst into song every few minutes didn’t seem all that incongruous. Everyone was in fine voice with Rob Compton (as Levi’s son, Jack) and Tim Newman (as the simple soul, Johnny) putting in an excellent Nightclubbing. David Burrows and Barry Bloxham were suitably menacing as the heavies and Louise English neatly captured that smouldering passion between her character, Rosa, and David’s Levi. There’s a nice blend of pathos and humour too, perhaps a little more could be made of the setting...a few more tricks or some subtle background sound effects to conjure up the atmosphere of the fairground...but these are minor quibbles.

This musical’s name says it all really, it’s FUN, FUN, FUN, a couple of hours of escapism with one of musical theatre’s underrated talents. People of a certain age will love wallowing in Essex’s hits, newcomers to his music will get a neat introduction to some fine rock and pop classics (actually I reckon Essex is due for serious revival, check out this current cover of Rock On by super cool Texas band Love Inks) and you’d have to have a heart as hard as a coconut to avoid feeling some genuine emotion at the end. Roll up, roll up for a great night out.

All The Fun Of The Fair is on at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until 18th September before hitting the road (in true funfair fashion) for a UK tour. Check out the website for dates. 15% discount for bearded ladies and a free goldfish in a plastic bag...possibly...

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