I have long since overcome my callow snobbery about musicals in general, but I still have problems with concert-format compilation musicals. What is the actual point of collections of So-and-So's greatest hits, staged without a narrative or thematic through line? We know how fine the songs are, because we have the original shows or records from which the songs are collated; what need is there to melt them down and fit them into a new, more shapeless container?
In some cases, the passage of time itself provides a reason. Half of the press-night audience in the Queen's Theatre for the Lennon/McCartney assemblage All You Need Is Love had not been born when The Beatles split up in 1970; for many, putting their songs in a live stage context is not a betrayal but a reaffirmation of their original power. And devisor/directors Pete Brooks and Jon Miller do a better job than many: there is no story as such, but a broad emotional progress, until things grow diffuse in the second half. The journey is more or less from simple, conventional boy-meets-girl rituals to complexity and meaninglessness shot through with shafts of keen sadness, culminating in the mandatory I'll-go-on final phase. Some motifs recur in darker shades, so that the straightforward dating jealousy of "You Can't Do That" in the first half modulates to violent jealousy in "Run For Your Life".
The pressures of cramming more than fifty numbers into two and a half hours results in some trimming: they bottle out of trying to find any emotional weight in "He bag production, he got walrus gumboot" in "Come Together" or "Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye" in "I Am The Walrus" by simply cutting those verses. Elsewhere, numbers are merged to intriguing effect, so that the complacent laddish brag of "She's A Woman" alternates with the women's raw deal in "I'm Down". Musical arranger Keith Strachan and the six-piece band ring some nice changes of tone, as well, so that "A Hard Day's Night" takes on a David Arnold tinge and "From Me To You" is reinvented as a sister to Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks theme.
In other respects, though, the stage-musical sausage factory takes its toll. One's heart sinks the moment Peter Eldridge begins to sing the opening number "In My Life" in that all-too-common mid-Atlantic drawl; one of the Fab Four's achievements was to prove that pop singers didn't have to pretend to be Yanks. Jacqui Dubois has an excellent soul voice (whereas even the powerful gospel flights of Linda John-Pierre begin to pay diminishing returns), but it's fair to say that her "Helter Skelter" would pass all but unrecognised by Charlie Manson.
The haunting non-linear treatments which have distinguished Brooks' work with his own Insomniac Productions company are thin on the ground, and when they do crop up as in a surreal fantasy sequence midway through Act Two, things lose too much focus. Of the kind of choreography which made Nigel Charnock such a delicious terror there is scarcely a sign. And despite the best attempts to give emotional colour both to the staging of individual songs and to the show as a whole – Neal Wright, for instance, combines a great comic talent with an impressive set of lungs – too many of the ensemble numbers with all twelve performers fall prey to an "S Club Party" kind of atmosphere. But it could easily have been so much worse, and after all, these works aren't sacrosanct: in the words of one of the few numbers not included in the show, it's only a Northern Song.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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