It’s amazing what a difference two and a half hours can make. When I take my seat at Liverpool Playhouse for the theatre’s new music-hall inspired show, The Star, I scribble a few notes. “Preconceptions not great. I’m not much interested in music hall/variety. If this is just a nostalgia fest, it’s unlikely to work for me.” By the end though, I am seriously considering adding the Blu-Ray collectors’ edition of The Good Old Days to my Christmas list. So why the change of heart?
Thankfully, this lovable production is more than just a run-through of tunes my grandad used to sing (though there are a few of those). This is a pantomime for grown-ups, a jukebox musical that winds the clock right back past the golden age of pop until it reaches a long-lost world of big bloomers, inexplicable catchphrases and giant marrows that serve as euphemisms for…well, you know.
The show is set in the Liverpool Playhouse of 150 years ago, back when it was called The Star Music Hall. Writer Michael Wynne and director Philip Wilson manage to cram in a host of authentic music hall numbers delivered with style and wit by the quality cast, but woven around them is a front-and-backstage panto-ish plot full of warmth, humour and some delicious scenery-chewing performances.
Much-loved Liverpool actor Eithne Browne plays Ellen, a grand old theatrical dame who fears time may finally be catching up with her. She takes to the music hall theme like greasepaint to bare flesh, and her big numbers, including a brilliant Wagnerian take on I Want to Sing in Opera (a song that dates back to 1910), are among the show’s musical highlights.
Browne’s professional rival (in the show, not real life – though who knows what happens backstage?) is Michelle Butterly’s twinkling, love-lorn Ida, and the two are also joined by crap comedian Arthur Crown (Danny O’Brien), naïve stagehand Jack (Jack Rigby), Helen Carter’s wide-eyed dresser Dora, and the Harry Secombe-styled Michael Starke who plays the MC trying to keep the whole thing from falling apart.
Then there’s the mysterious figure of Mr Charles played by Everyman and Playhouse regular Kevin Harvey. He spirits in and out of scenes like some kind of sozzled theatrical spectre, and had I not seen the hilarious Lucy Briggs-Owen in the Playhouse production of The Rivals a couple of months ago, I might have named Harvey’s swaying black-tie-and-tails performance as the funniest of the year. Imagine the Sandeman Port logo cross-bred with the character Matt Berry plays in every show he’s in.
Visually, The Star shines very brightly. The music hall sequences are performed in front of beautifully painted backdrops styled on Victorian toy theatres, and periodically they are lifted up and away to reveal the dusty backstage nooks and crannies where the theatre’s real dramas are played out. The music works wonderfully too. Under Alex Smith’s direction, the live band captures the spirit of times gone by without being constrained by authenticity or undue reverence.
In the world of pantomime, performers often get a laugh by drawing attention to the show’s own failings, with gags about plot holes and poor punchlines skewering any attempt at genuine theatrical ambition. In the spirit of the season, The Star attempts the same trick, but this is where the show’s weaknesses begin to peep through. When apparently emotional moments are undermined by constant clowning, and plot points are tossed aside as if they are irrelevant, it becomes difficult to maintain the momentum between musical numbers. While the fun generally keeps on coming, some of the linking sequences fall flat.
For the most part though, The Star captures the sparkling sense of variety you used to feel when you opened a massive tin of Quality Street, or the kind of uproarious magic that used to make the Woolworths’ ads worth waiting for (alternatively, insert the personal festive touchpoint of your choice). My favourite titbits include Dr Recall the Memory Man, the Great Magico and his Egyptian vanishing cabinet, and the sheer peculiarity of some of those old music hall songs. Ain’t it Grand to be Blooming Well Dead (made famous by Leslie Sarony in 1932) is particularly good in this regard.
While it might never quite go supernova, The Star is a welcome addition to Liverpool’s Christmas constellation, and is another fine Playhouse alternative to the city’s other more child-centred treats. Those who already love music hall will no doubt be in their element, but I’m living proof that if you think all those cheeky winks and double meanings aren’t for you, this show may yet have a heavenly festive surprise in store.
Photos: Robert Day
What: The Star
Where: Liverpool Playhouse
When: until January 14, 2017
More info: www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/the-star