SOUL TRAIN
Victoria Palace Theatre, London SW1
Opened 22 June, 1999

Soul Train is not a musical. That would imply that there is something more to it than music. There isn't. It's a concert, one that happens to be in a West End theatre and supervised by a theatre director (Mark Clements). That does not make it theatrical, any more than the Pet Shop Boys' first live tour several years ago was a film simply for having been directed by Derek Jarman. In effect, every theatre critic at this show's press night was brought along under false pretences.

In recent weeks I have bemoaned the thin plot or perfunctory treatment of narrative in musicals like Up Against The Wall and Boyband... but, hell, at least they had some kind of plot to their names. Even that shameless exercise in exploitation, the Blues Brothers stage show, has more plot than Soul Train. What happens here is people come onstage, sing and dance through a number, usually segue it into another number for the most tenuous of thematic or mood reasons ("I Get The Sweetest Feeling" into "My Man Is A Sweet Man", for instance, or "Mustang Sally" into "Living In America"), then the lights go out; then they come up again and some other people sing and dance through another song.... and so on. Numbers are taken at a fair lick, and seldom actually completed, in order to cram in the maximum number (some 45 songs in two and three-quarter hours). Little sketches are performed during numbers, but these have all the dramatic substance of Pan's People routines: anything, in other words, to complement the song even vaguely. The entire spoken component of the 70-minute first half consists of two brief speeches welcoming us, and two one-liners.

Sure, the performers are talented: Sharon Benson has a magnificent voice (eliciting an enraptured cry from the audience of "Sing it, sister!" during "Cigarettes And Coffee"), and Danny John-Jules is the perfect MC and comic focus, however impossible it is to see him looking ultra-smooth without thinking of his portrayal of the Cat in Red Dwarf. Sheila Ferguson of The Three Degrees is greeted on her entrance as if she were the Blessed Virgin returned to earth... which, to judge by the length and tone of her programme biography, is only a little less fervour than she expects. Sure, there are plenty of fine songs in the show (although what kind of soul musical is it that includes not a single Al Green number?). Sure, the audience don't exactly have to be forced into participating although this may have been helped by the apparent partial "papering" of the press-night house by giving tickets to teenagers from stage schools (either that or the group in Row B genuinely thought they were auditioning by getting all the dance moves off pat during "I Got You (I Feel Good)"). But it only serves to illustrate the paradox that a show can be the ultimate in feel-good fare without actually being any theatrical good itself. Richard Nixon made a brief appearance in the video montage for the obligatory "serious" sequence ("Why Can't We Live Together", naturally); he had more dramatic presence than the stageful of singers and dancers in front of him.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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