The Blues Brothers Xmas Special – Arts Theatre

Blues Brothers Christmas Special - Arts Theatre (1)

The Blues Brothers Xmas Special at the Arts Theatre, London. Picture: Piers Foley Photography

The Blues Brothers Xmas Special continues at the Arts Theatre, London until 10 January 2016.

Star rating: two stars ★ ★ ✩ ✩ ✩

I’m a huge fan of John Landis’ cult 1980 movie starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. What’s not to like about a film crammed with violent nuns, epic car chases, comedy legends and a to-die-for soundtrack served up by a cast that includes the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown and Cab Calloway?

It was with caution, therefore, that I approached this latest stage adaption of The Blues Brothers, now running at London’s smallest clearing house, the Arts Theatre. How does such a rare – even unique – movie translate to the stage? Can it possibly do the material justice?

The answers? It doesn’t, sadly, and no, it can’t.

But wait. There’s a lot to like in Joshua Mumby’s festive revamping of the show. First off, the two leads do a great job of channeling Jake and Elwood Blues as portrayed by Aykroyd and Belushi. Director Mumby, in his West End debut, takes on the Aykroyd role himself, and has the twitchy choreography nailed. He’s also in fine voice when singing, and not too shabby on the harmonica. (His North American accent needs work, but he thankfully keeps the chat to a minimum.)

David Kristopher-Brown also makes for a perfect Blues brother, not only looking and sounding the part – he performs some impressive vocal gymnastics – but also having mastered Belushi’s comic insouciance. He’s a big lad but he’s spry, and he throws himself around the stage with the ease of a waif-like ballet dancer.

Covering all of the movie’s male guest star roles is the outstanding Simon Ray-Harvey. Popping up every other song, Harvey adds colour and flair to the proceedings and does some great impersonations: as Ray Charles’ music shop owner (‘Shake a Tail Feather’), James Brown’s fireball preacher (‘The Old Landmark’) and Cab Calloway’s soft-shoe shuffler (‘Minnie the Moocher”’). He steals the show every time.

Supporting the lads are a trio of Stax Sisters – played by Hannah Kee, Sasi Strallen and T’Shan Williams – who are rarely off stage, providing the harmonic scaffolding and sequined glamour. Williams is the stand-out sister, faced with the daunting challenge of filling Aretha Franklin’s roles (‘Think’ and ‘Respect’), which she sort of does.

Spread across the back of the (rather cheap looking) stage is the band, led from the keyboard by James Robert Ball. This tight seven-piece – with Alex Marchisone (drums), Rohit Nijhawan (bass), Matthew Ball (guitar), Wesley Frankel (sax), Duncan Fraser (trumpet) and Samuel Sankey (trombone) – does the funky soundtrack justice and must be one of the best bands in the West End at the moment. They also role play, gamely taking part in the action when required.

So, why did I leave underwhelmed? Well, as a fan of the movie, I couldn’t get over how disconnected it was from the original. There is practically no story – no nuns, no “let’s get the band back together” thread, no purpose or point – and my theatre chum who hadn’t seen the movie had absolutely no idea what was going on. It’s just one long jukebox session: song after song after song. To be fair, you get a lot for your money – there are 28 songs listed in the programme – and it’s all done with great energy and passion. If this is the kind of night out you want, then fine, you’ll enjoy the hit songs and the singalongability.

But for me – not a fan of the jukebox musical format or the office/hen party audience – it was all too much. (I know, a theatre snob; it probably didn’t help that I’d spent the evening before enjoying a bit of Motown in Ronnie Scott’s.) I could forgive the tacked-on Christmas flavouring that crept in towards the end of the show, but not the relentless badgering to clap and sing along. Enforced fun is a real turn off, and I was compelled to stand for the last two songs in order to dance along. Bah humbug. Technically, the sound balance was in need of work, too. For once, I was desperate for the band to pump up the volume: the much-hyped guitar and sax solos came not with a bang but a whimper. And the whole thing had something of a varsity feel: cheap and cheerful.

It might not have been my cup of tea – I wanted to like it, I really did – but the theatre was jumping at the end, so what do I know? If you’re looking for something fun, lively and mindless, The Blues Brothers offers a night of great songs and festive cheer. If you’re after a bit of story, get hold of the DVD and enjoy these classic songs as they should be heard.

Craig Glenday

Buy tickets for The Blues Brothers Xmas Special here: www.musicaltheatrereview.entstix.com/tickets/the-blues-brothers

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