Monday, 23 March 2009

All the Fun of the Fair - Sunderland Empire

All The Fun Of The Fair
Book: Jon Conway
Music & Lyrics: David Essex
Director: Nikolai Foster

Reviewer:Ian Cain
Rarely have I ever been more moved by a musical play than I was at last night’s performance of All The Fun Of The Fair. Inspired by the music of David Essex – and starring the legend himself – this contemporary tale of passion, prejudice and personal loss is set in the murky, gritty underworld of a travelling funfair.

Levi Lee (David Essex) is the recently widowed owner of the travelling fair who is still coming to terms with the loss of his wife, Lizzie. He is also struggling to repair the fractured relationship he has with his rebellious teenage son, Jack (Paul-Ryan Carberry) who feels that the fair is hopelessly out of date and in desperate need of a revamp. Matters are made even more complicated by Rosa (Louise English), the attractive gypsy clairvoyant, who predicts that any change will result in grave danger.

David Essex, although no longer the pretty-boy pin-up that he once was, has a somewhat grizzly appeal and he is just as charismatic and as much of a hit with the ladies in the audience as ever. The twinkle of the bright blue eyes and the wry smile is still enough to have them all of a-quiver, yet his performance as Levi also has a sincerity, sensitivity and resonance that is to be acknowledged and applauded. His singing voice now has a gravelly warmth that suits the part perfectly.

Louise English, blessed with a stunning voice and sultry good looks, is perfectly cast as Rosa and she gives a performance that has conviction and depth. During her scenes with Levi the sexual chemistry between the pair is palpable. The exquisite clarity of her singing voice is shown at it’s best during her wistful performance of ‘A Winter’s Tale.’ Indeed, Miss English is a rare commodity and, in every way, she is the archetypal consummate leading lady.

Paul-Ryan Carberry’s performance as Jack is full of attitude and has an edginess that convincingly conveys the impetuousness of youth. Emma Thornett and Tanya Robb contrast beautifully as the two girls vying for Jack’s attentions. Miss Thornett is suitably feisty as Mary, Rosa’s daughter, while Miss Robb is equally successful as the slightly spoiled daughter of local gangster, Harvey.

David Burrows portrays Harvey with an understanding of the role that enables the audience to see him as an over protective father rather than the brutish villain that he actually is. The dark undertones of his character are punctuated by the haplessness of his henchman, Druid, played excellently by Barry Bloxham.

Stefan Butler delivers an endearing performance as Jonny, a simple-minded young outcast who has found a sense of belonging since joining the travellers. The ensemble, comprising Susan Hallam-Wright, Chris Crosby, Nicola Bryan, Phil Lawton, Lara Denning Billy Christy-Cook and Carl Patrick all put in strong performances as other members of fairground folk.

Jon Conway’s writing skilfully reaches out to the audience, pulls at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever been torn in love and takes them on an emotional roller coaster ride. The story wonderfully combines humour and heartache, danger and deception, fun and fear. The inclusion of David Essex’s back catalogue of hits is intrinsic rather than contrived and each song seems to possess a sense of theatricality that reflects the action on stage and validates its inclusion.

The fairground set, designed by Colin Richmond, is authentically evocative and includes stalls, barrows, carousel horses, motor bikes and even a synchronised dodgems sequence. It is brought even more vividly to life by the use of surround sound effects and Steve Jonas is to be congratulated for the sheer effectiveness of this.

Nikolai Foster’s slick and stylish direction is the icing on the cake of this compelling and captivating musical. Indeed, if one were to look into Rosa’s crystal ball, I am sure that a long and successful future lies ahead for All The Fun Of The Fair. It’s a hit!

All The Fun Of The Fair runs at The Sunderland Empire until Saturday 28th March 2009.
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