Where the likes of Bob Carlton can keep a compilation pop musical like Return To The Forbidden Planet above the waterline by dint of turning the camp control up to 12, writer/producer/director David Graham can't see beyond the till. The humour in Great Balls Of Fire is flatter than a government popularity graph, the direction would embarrass Gerry Anderson and I've seen more plot in an item of junk mail.
The curtain rises on a pink plasterboard diner somewhere in smalltown '50s America. Archie J. Culpepper dreams of becoming a famous rock'n'roll manager, but has no acts to his name. Enter an unlikely quartet of convenient multi-instrumentalists who sign with Archie, augment their ranks with the boy-and-girl-next-door customers and Archie's sax-playing waitress niece and head for their first dancehall gig.
Er... that's it. The footling romantic byplay never gets out of neutral gear, and all pretence at plot goes out of a high window after the interval, as Act Two consists almost entirely of the band's performance.
Archie is a cardboard dork, the kind of character who would have sand kicked in his face by Walter the Softy. Mike Berry brings to his role the charisma we remember from his Blue Riband television commercials. Someone loyally offers, "Gosh, with those glasses you look like Buddy Holly" – cue medley – when in fact there's a greater resemblance to Tory backbencher Sir George Gardiner. But lawks! Archie is transformed by the healing power of rock'n'roll into a boogie messiah... well, imagine John Patten with an electric guitar. This isn't plotting, it's getting your star in front of the microphone, and it is insultingly clumsy.
Grantley Buck's musical direction is assured, even showing flair on a gradually built-up arrangement of "All I Have To Do Is Dream", and the band know their chops on the three dozen or so '50s standards that they play. However, the sound mix is too bright, lending some guitar breaks a trebly sharpness that could cut cheese.
And a competent covers band does not a piece of musical theatre make. Graham's production never escapes a spirit of perfunctoriness, teetering over into contempt for the audience. Archie yells jubilantly, "Are we gonna have some fun tonight or what?" I'd say it falls into the "or what" category.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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