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Dusty at The Charing Cross Theatre – Review

Alison Arnopp as Dusty Springfield in DUSTY
Alison Arnopp as Dusty Springfield in DUSTY
Photo Elliott Franks

Is it possible to faithfully record the life of one of the most talented performers of her generation?  That is the monumental task undertaken by the cast and crew of “Dusty” at the Charing Cross Theatre.

In a deserted dressing room at the now defunct Talk of The Town, Nancy Jones (Francesca Jackson) is giving an interview about her deceased friend Dusty Springfield. In it, Nancy talks about how Dusty (Alison Arnopp) was actually born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, of Irish Catholic parents, and started singing at a very early age, mainly due to the influence of her father Gerard (Graham Kent) a perfectionist of a man who sometimes infuriated his wife Kay (Ellen Verenieks) due to his negativity. After a spell with ‘The Lana Sisters’, Mary joined her brother Tom (Leo Elso) – where she adopted the name Dusty Springfield – in a Folk trio that had moderate success in the early 1960s. While recording in Nashville, Dusty heard different types of music that heavily influenced her solo career (after leaving The Springfields in 1963) as she left Folk behind and turned to a more pop sound rooted in Rhythm and Blues, and so a legend was born.

Dusty” is a ground-breaking musical in many ways. As well as a live Dusty in the shape of Alison, there are also video recordings of the lady and even an attempt at 3D rendering to bring Dusty back to the stage. Does this work? Well, yes and no. There are times when the video recordings – with a live band and backing singers – work really really well. Indeed there are a couple of notable duos between Dusty and cast members – particularly the one with ‘real Dusty’ Alison and Norma (Sienna Sebek) – that are superb to watch. Unfortunately, the 3D side of things just doesn’t quite hit the spot – for some reason Dusty seems to have her back to the audience a lot of the time in these –  and the movement of the machinery, though covered by a curtain, is quite loud and distracting.

Writers Duncan Sibbald, Kim Weild and Chris Cowey manage to convey some of the essence of Dusty but I didn’t really feel that I knew her that well after the show. Part of the problem was that the show only really covered the time that Nancy and Dusty were friends so although we started in her early life, the story ended at the recording of ‘Dusty in Memphis’ quite a while before her death in 1999. There was a definite feeling that she constantly strove for perfection due to her father’s influence – he seemed to be always putting her down during his time on the stage – but, aside from one episode when recording ‘Son of A Preacher Man’ there was no real sense of how much that need for perfection influenced her work and her relationships. With regards to Dusty’s personal life, again, things were hinted, but there was a certain amount of coyness with only one relationship – that with Norma – shown in any form of depth. This is a shame as I thought the first act, where it was obvious without being stated that Dusty had feelings for Nancy was really well done.

The cast, particularly Alison and Francesca, are obviously committed to the show  – and it is interesting to see the use of actors as musicians as well, multi-tasking at its finest – and, on the whole the direction, costumes, lighting worked really well on the small Charing Cross stage.  However some things just didn’t work for me. This was especially true of the dancers who seemed to pop up a lot but for no real reason. When they were backing Alison giving a Dusty performance, they were great but there were other times when it felt they were on stage for something to do which was a shame.

There has been a lot of negativity in this review but there were good points to the show. The best being, of course the music itself. There were some wonderful times when songs were dropped in – such as ‘You Don’t Own Me’ sung by Dusty to her Manager – which really worked well and I would have liked to have seen more of that. I do also think the show should really have been a proper tribute to Dusty with Alison singing more of the icon’s songs – the girl has a wonderful voice – and the 3D kicked into the long grass.  

Overall, this is not a great show. If you are a fan of Dusty’s music you will probably really enjoy it but if you want to know more about the person behind the blue-eyed soul singer with her bouffant hair then I would suggest a good biography instead.

3 Star Review

Review by Terry Eastham

DUSTY is a unique new multi-media “Fusion Musical”. A celebration of the career of Dusty Springfield, a true innovator, this theatrical event, seamlessly combines the most up-to-date 3-D technology and digital media (some of it rare film footage only recently discovered) with a recognisable musical theatre format of live performance, music and dance. The audience experiences the story as told through the eyes of Nancy Jones, one of Dusty’s childhood friends, and other key figures who accompanied Dusty on her journey.

Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, we follow the highs and lows of the prodigiously gifted singer’s rise from middle class suburban London, to the recording of her seminal album Dusty in Memphis. With her determination, vision and desire to succeed, we watch Dusty chase a unique sound, embrace the outsider, break rules, introduce England to Tamla Motown, ‘The Sound Of Black America’, beat a path to America for the British Invasion and get deported from South Africa for kicking against apartheid. Dusty turned music studios upside down, recording in toilets and corridors to get the sound she wanted, and produce some the most unforgettable songs ever.

Dusty Springfield was the leading female British pop singer of the Sixties and she continues to be an inspiration for a many British female artists. She is often the benchmark by which they are judged. Her popularity endures, by the regularity with which her music continues to be heard on radio, television and in film today.

DUSTY is a celebration of a peerless career and a fitting tribute to the finest blue-eyed soul singer Britain has ever seen.

Performance Times:- Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 2:30pm and Saturdays at 3pm
Run time approx. 2 hours
http://www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/

Tuesday 8th September 2015

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