The title of Tommy Steele's whistle-stop tour of his four decades as an all-round entertainer verges on hubris. The large fan club contingent in the first night audience was predictably rapturous; elsewhere, though, could be spotted a frozen-jawed rictus of disbelief.
Steele's ego pervades every aspect of the show. His name looms above the title; no director is credited (we infer that it is Tommy's baby); most ridiculously, the cast list in the programme is precisely one name long. The last touch is perhaps meant to be comical, but it is also noticeable that during the curtain call – more properly, the first curtain call, since two "encores" have plainly been directed as integral parts of the show – his 10-strong ensemble is absent. The applause is to be Tommy's alone.
Make no mistake, the Bermondsey boy knows how to put a show together. The assemblage of numbers, winsome gags and audience-charming sessions is the kind of variety package one did not think was made any more. His ensemble, changing costumes several times from traditional chorus-line drag to cartoon cockney for "Flash Bang Wallop!" to Lycra-mediaeval for "The King's New Clothes", disport themselves with vast energy and fixed grins. The evening is as inoffensive as a vicar's tea party, even when Tommy professes to "rock out" – he is possibly the whitest person ever to play "Johnny B. Goode".
Steele has a wealth of experience to draw upon, from his early career as a rocker through co-starring with Fred Astaire in Finian's Rainbow to his recent stage outings in Singin' In The Rain. He trades nakedly on his past and on his cheery Cockney stock, but is either too old (at 58) or too complacent to put in the energy he demands of his supporting performers. Most of his dance routines are of the "nonchalant glide" kind; his voice is evidently still strong, but his delivery has degenerated into a lazy pub-singer croon. The early hit "Singing The Blues" is given a blaring, Elvis-in-Vegas arrangement. I have always believed "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to be an overrated song, but the almost jaunty, similarly brass-heavy treatment bestowed upon it here merits a custodial sentence. It is hard to tell for certain, but on a couple of numbers he may even be lip-synching. The cleverest routine, in which Tommy as Don Quixote gallops around the stage in front of a comically speeded-up film of English country roads, shows its age in the antiquated cars which veer across the screen.
Tommy Steele undeniably knows his craft, but on the evidence of "What A Show!" he can either no longer pull it off or, more worryingly, has come to believe that after so long, adulation is his as of right. It is not.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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