Surprise, surprise… it’s a night of celebrating our late, great, Cilla Black, with other iconic British bands and stylisation mixed in to make a wonderful evening.

Cilla: The Musical (by Jeff Pope, directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson) presents the details of the singer’s rise from her working-class Liverpool origins to national stardom, alongside her Cavern Club friends and contemporaries such as The Beatles. It also charts the ups and downs of her relationship with Bobby Willis (Alexander Patmore), the man who became her husband and eventual manager, as well as the tragic life of her dashing and self-assured first manager, Brian Epstein (Andrew Lancel).

Those who have seen the ITV mini-series Cilla, starring Sheridan Smith in the title role, will know the details of Black’s biography well, and I won’t rehearse them here. In the background are issues of social class and religious divides, the consequences of fame and neglect, the quiet tragedy of homosexuals in 1960s Britain, as well as some famous faces of the era, including John Lennon and Burt Bacharach. These issues remain firmly in the background, however. First and foremost, Cilla: The Musical is a hugely enjoyable piece of entertainment joyously celebrating the life of Cilla.

Kara Lily Hayworth does an incredible job in channelling Cilla Black; not merely in her mannerisms but also in the style and range of her speech and singing. Haworth also makes the awkward change in Cilla’s temperament apparent, as her newfound stardom and jealousy begin to affect her relationships with others. It is a truly impressive and transformational performance. This carefully crafted characterisation is equally achieved by Alexander Patmore as Bobby, who manages to find the emotional truth in what could have easily been a by-the-numbers performance, balancing the combination of adoration and growing resentment towards the woman he loves. Lancel’s Brian Epstein offers some ballast to the show, and it is only in the final act that Epstein’s inner turmoil and dangerous liaisons comes to the fore, and we truly appreciate the impact this man has had on Cilla personally as well as professionally.

The standout stars of the production are truly the musical set-pieces, which showcase an impressive and musically-capable supporting cast. Quite obviously unlike the TV series, the musical production decides to build the narrative even more so around the musical performances (of which there are many more musical moments by comparison celebrating Cilla’s talent), offering just enough interstitial scenes to keep the flow of the story moving along nicely. Similarly, the use of lights and costume was nothing short of brilliant, transporting the audience from the dinginess of Liverpool’s Cavern Club to the bright lights and booming vocals of Cilla’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The production crew have managed a lot with what seems like minimal set-design, creating fully believable atmospheres that can turn on a sixpence.  

The weaknesses of the production are few and far between. The supporting characters were perhaps not as detailed and nuanced as they could have been which made me feel as if I was watching a talented pastiche of The Beatles, for example, rather than the real thing. Moreover, the second act lacks the propulsive energy of the first, when Cilla has to deal with maintaining and expanding her fame rather than going from rags to riches. This is not necessarily a flaw in the production, but it was certainly the less interesting part of the story.

In sum, Cilla: The Musical is a wonderfully written and performed show that will appeal to multiple generations. It’s a fun evening of British entertainment at its best. See it and be prepared to sing along and fall in love with Cilla all over again.  

Reviewer: Amanda Hodgson

Reviewed: 16th October 2018

North West End Rating: ★★★★