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posted/updated: 10 Sep 2017 - edit review / upload photos
Son of a Preacher Man
The songs of Dusty Springfield. Book: Warner Brown. Produced by Eclipse Live, Infinite Group, TBO Productions, Dusty Touring Ltd, Churchill Theatre Bromley.
society/company: Churchill Theatre Bromley (professional) (directory)
performance date: 07 Sep 2017
venue: Churchill Theatre Bromley
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)

Two years ago a new musical biopic of Dusty Springfield, titled just Dusty, was universally panned by all who saw it at London’s Charing Cross Theatre – with a very generous one star being the average review rating. Now in 2017, with a list of producers as long as your arm, Ms Springfield’s music has returned, but this time not in a Carol King-style biopic, but an unrelated and brand-new jukebox musical featuring an original book by Warner Brown (Walking With Dinosaurs – The Arena Spectacular, Garbo – The Musical, The Biograph Girl) while under the experienced direction and choreography of Mr Craig Revel Horwood.

In Brown’s book we find out that ‘The Preacher Man’ was a popular record shop located on the corner of Soho’s Dean St & Old Compton St. Here people of swinging sixties London would hang out for many of their younger days benefitting from the sage-like wisdom of its proprietor... hence the shop’s adopted name. In 2017, the same building is now the Double Shot coffee bar, but that doesn’t stop three people – who have all experienced unrequited love – from assembling at the legendary address seeking closure, hopefully aided the mythical music premises.

It falls on the ‘son’ of The Preacher Man (oh yes, you read that correctly), who now fortunately runs the coffee bar, to reluctantly come to the rescue of these three troubled visitors – in the shadow of his father – and offer a way forward to the trio on their treacherous path to rekindling love.

What is a fairly promising storyline indeed has potential but unfortunately doesn’t really go anywhere further, apart from the shoe-horning of Dusty Springfield’s musical catalogue at every available opportunity. So, while the music is of course lovely enough – and exceptionally arranged and performed by a talented cast of actor-musicians – the plot soon runs out of steam and ends up somewhat treading water.

Despite this, shoe-horned highlights include: I Only Want to Be With You, The Look of Love, Nowhere to Run and, surprise surprise, Son of a Preacher Man.

Diana Vickers, who has made quite a name for herself since those early barefooted X Factor days, is by far the leading light in this show – so much so that her new single (advertised in the programme) has been taken from her ripping finale performance of the title song. As Kat, Vickers is chasing a young beau she briefly met at an Internet dating event, and her tenuous link to the record shop was from the stories told her by her recently deceased Nan. Her feisty and witty quips undoubtedly make her twenty-something character the most interesting of a pretty uninspiring bunch.

It pains me to say it but Debra Stephenson, as Alison, sadly looks uncomfortable and even a little miscast. Alison’s controversial back story has brought the recently divorced teacher to the record shop that her father would often talk about because she’s fallen head over heels with one of her seventeen-year-old male students (for a modern show Alison’s tale bizarrely earns everyone’s sympathy rather than shock or even disgust). As well as some rather unconvincing acting, Stephenson’s weaker vocal is, dare I say it, a little exposed by Vickers’ superior set of pipes on more than one occasion.

Michael Howe’s Paul is of an age where he remembers the record shop at first hand as he recalls his own youth and the young man he met and fell in love with there, but was never brave enough to take things further. Howe boasts a fine vocal which impresses. However, with the cast’s varying natural styles, some of the multiple harmonies in tricky numbers, such as the latter How Can I Be Sure? may possibly need further arranging to really nail.

The experienced Ian Reddington as the son of The Preacher Man does about as well as he can with a limited script; as Simon, he keeps going over the same old ground for most of the show – either scratching his head or apologising for not being his father. In fact Reddington’s character draws significant parallels with his role as Joe Casey’s deceased father in the original London Our House production fifteen years ago – as well as an identical East End accent.

Strong support comes from the coffee shop’s harmonising ‘Cappuccino Sisters’ played by Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty and Cassiopeia Berekely-Agyepong and, as mentioned the ensemble of actor-musicians do well – although I don’t know what Craig Revel Horwood would have done with them had they not had something to blow on, strum or pluck. Having said that it was refreshing to see the ensemble perform a major number entirely on their own – the pre-interval I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.

Opening at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre, Son of a Preacher Man is right at the start of a long tour which stretches all the way through to the beginning of next July. It’s probably got more than enough star-power to sell plenty of tickets first time around (although Vickers leaves the show at the end of 2017), but after that I wouldn’t bet against this one being released straight to the amateur market for the latter half of 2018.

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