At Last: The Etta James Story – Assembly Hall, Leamington Spa

Picture: Veronica McLaughlin

Picture: Veronica McLaughlin

At Last: The Etta James Story was reviewed at the Assembly Hall, Leamington Spa.

Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩

Leamington Spa shook the drizzle from its raincoat and stepped tentatively back into the 1950s, safe in the hands of Simon Myers and Moira Bennett’s latest musical revue, a tribute to the late and inimitable (or so you might think) Etta James.

James’ career spanned more than 50 years, earning her spots in the rock’n’roll, blues and Grammy halls of fame, and influencing a generation of new artists from Diana Ross to Amy Winehouse.

This pleasantly inevitable offering which recently took Australia by storm tells the fascinating story of Etta’s music, loves and destructive vices. The affection and respect with which her story is told is palpable, if occasionally the piece sacrifices its own identity in reverence.

Vika Bull has a truly remarkable voice, and steps into James’ enormous shoes with what seems like infinite ease. She is a joy to watch, and her presence as Etta is invigorating.

It is in watching Bull as herself, however, that her light begins to wander behind the proverbial bushel. The story of a woman so utterly inspired by her idol is as scintillating as the story of Etta herself, and it is a shame that Bull is often more comfortable in Etta’s shoes onstage than in her own.

Indeed, it is a joy to watch her literally remove her shoes for the encore and own the stage as herself. It feels as though we should be seeing more of the woman behind this tour de force!

The members of John McAll’s merry band are similarly slick and elegant in their delivery, even if it does feel as though the feigned spontaneity and shambolic virtuosity so prevalent in 50s/60s rock’n’roll is a world away from this neat, professional group. Certainly, though, they provide a pleasant and entertaining sound, and a solid core to the show.

This is certainly a revue, not a musical – and as such, the narrative serves mainly to inform. However, there’s still perhaps more room for interest when it comes to the spoken links between numbers.

Bull and Tibor Gyapjas make an admirable job of an often terribly dry script, but it’s evident that the art of the anecdote has been unattended somewhat in this production.

This is a great evening of music for Etta James fans and anyone interested in her work and story. Those looking for a deeper or more complex artistic exploration of her existence may still find joy in the tribute, but may feel a little short changed.

All in all, a satisfying evening of music from an absolute powerhouse of a leading lady.

Aura Simon

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