Dusty continues at the Charing Cross Theatre, London until 21 November.
Star rating: two stars ★ ★ ✩ ✩ ✩
When you’re asked to review a show which has been running in preview for months, has had well publicised major cast and directorial changes not to mention rumours of disagreements, it behoves you to go with an open mind. This I duly did – wide open. I really wanted to enjoy and admire Dusty, but I’m afraid it wasn’t to be.
The life story of Dusty Springfield, her humble origins, getting started as part of a successful trio, making it as a solo artist, but becoming isolated by stardom, is an idea with legs. It could make sparky musical theatre. But the framing device of a retrospective TV interview with her friend Nancy (Francesca Jackson) does it no favours at all.
Every time the action cuts back to the interview all the tension is thrown away. And the over reliance on archive film and holograms of the real Dusty with the sound badly synced – long sequences of it – is theatrically very weak. The story telling is bitty too. At one point it jumps forward three years and you’re left wondering what happened in the interim. The show has been substantially cut and changed in the last week and I suspect this is clumsy evidence of it.
And as for the dialogue. Never before have I heard hollow laughter from people in the audience clearly responding in embarrassed incredulity to: “I made my peace with disappointment a long time ago.”
Most of the script is poor which is why the acting so often seems wooden. The cast – all 14 of them – including talented actor musos like Graham Kent and Leo Elso, are working flat out in an attempt to make it work. But good acting convinces without showing, and even allowing for press night tension, the effort is very visible here with the result that the piece fails to convince.
Alison Arnopp as Dusty does the best possible job that can be done with this role as it is written and conceived. She is variously excited, troubled, yearning, angry and prima-donnish. And she sings well although, of course, she doesn’t have Dusty Springfield’s voice, and over and over again this flawed show invites us to make comparisons.
There are some saving graces, however, which is why this isn’t a one star review. The ensemble backing group does some pleasing work and the 1960s costumes (congratulations Jason Kealer) are great. I love the sparkly dresses and the way that Kealer has re-created for Arnopp many of the fabulous clothes Dusty Springfield actually wore. The post-curtain finale – a medley of Dusty songs nicely choreographed with most of the band on stage – succeeds, maybe because the cast has warmed up and relaxed by then, knowing it’s nearly over. The nine-piece band (MD Dean Austin) makes a sparky sound too.