This being my first journey to the Hackney Empire, I was very pleased to find that the theatre is a proper old fashioned beauty. Gorgeously appointed and a fabulous space to see a show. So settling down to watch Carnaby Street – The Musical in this auditorium with pre-show 60’s classics coming over the speakers can’t but help put you in a good mood.
The show opens and the first thing that hits you is that the set doesn’t match the lustre of the theatre. It is a shame, as in many other ways Matthew Wright’s design is well pitched, but it looks like the set has been designed for the ease of taking on tour rather than immersing you in the titular and iconic part of London. However, the costumes are great and the other set dressings help to ease that first impression.
The show kicks off with hit after hit from the 60s coming at you thick and fast. In fact, probably too thickly and too quickly. ‘Jukebox musicals’ often have the problem that the songs feel crow barred in with dialogue that can become cringeworthy to force the famous number to have some relevance to the show. The start of act 1 avoided that by largely abandoning any idea of making the songs relevant at all and just going back to back with well known numbers. At this point it is worth noting that generally the cast playing their own instruments, singing the chorus and lead parts, providing backing dancing and generally selling the numbers went about their tasks with vim and vigour. Unfortunately the lack of any real character development meant that for the most part of act 1 it was very hard to care about who was singing what.
Towards the end of act 1, we started to get a feeling more for who was who and why we were following them. The story is simple enough, young man comes to London with a guitar and a head full of dreams of making it big. He starts to make it and along the way those relationships alter as the success changes him.
Act 2, however was a complete change of pace. Less focus was put on cramming as many songs in as possible and the characters were given room to breathe and develop. Songs were placed with far more significance and as the story unfolded it became sweeter and genuinely more touching that one might well have anticipated.
In fact, when the script is looking at the emotional development of its characters it is at its strongest. Sadly however, a good deal of the script was devoted to ‘comedy’. This came in the form of one liners that never really worked. Even in an audience as full of good will as tonights’ was, the gags fell flat and they became a little tiresome to sit through them.
In terms of the performances, Verity Rushworth’s performance as Penny was strong, but her character suffered from a lack of development and one feels that there’s more there that could have been brought out. Matthew Wycliffe as Jude (the young dreamer) was very strong, a lovely voice and a charming presence – the moments he was given to show his range showed he is an actor of some substance. Aaron Sidwell as Jack is largely in a narrator capacity as well as being the manager of the young star, such a dual role is always a difficult trick to play and his character was given a large amount of the ‘comedy’ lines that sadly didn’t hit – he gave his all in making the character loveable never the less and by the end had generally succeeded. Tricia Adele-Turner as Jane was like a good deed in a bad world. Her character was given a lot of scope for emotional development and she took it, her voice was a joy to listen to and she gave a truly wonderful performance. Other character parts gave us Paul Hazel as Lily who was clearly having a whale of a time in this camp riot of a performance; Mark Pearce as Wild Thing gave us a good old fashioned rocker; and Gregory Clarke played Al the newspaper salesman who did his very best in a role that was nothing but poor one-liners and headlines from the 60s, a mixture that made me feel genuinely sorry for him trying his best with a bad lot from the script. A special mention must go to Hugo Harold-Harrsion playing Arnold Lane, the record label executive – as soon as he came on stage he was magnificent, slimy and slick, and a twisted joy to watch and a real highlight of the show.
Is the show perfect? No, but even after an uneven first quarter and some clunky script it pulls off a fun night out. It may not be a classic to run through the ages, but if you’re a fan of 60s music, you can do a lot worse than enjoy a night in the company of this talented cast giving their all.
Carnaby Street – The Musical runs at the Hackney Empire until April 14th before it goes on tour to High Wycombe, Rhyl, Hastings, Windsor, Tumbridge Wells, Manchester, Lowestoft, Birmingham, St Albans and Bournemouth. Dates and venue information can be found at the shows website http://www.carnabystreetthemusical.com