Book: Jonathan Harvey
Director: Maria Friedman
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
“I’m 90 percent smoke and mirrors darling” declares Dusty Springfield, with a glint in her kohl-rimmed eyes as she rejects a marriage proposal and hails a taxi, disappearing into the night. The legendary British singer, born Mary O’Brien in 1939, was famously private however this new musical from acclaimed writer Jonathan Harvey seeks to reveal the real person inside the persona.
Opening with a nervous Dusty about to perform live on Ready Steady Go!, the TV producer encourages the audience to clap and sing along in what feels like a warm-up for a crowd-pleasing but generic jukebox-style musical of hit songs. It is a welcome surprise when Dusty subverts expectations, presenting a more nuanced, character-driven production that celebrates the ‘highs’ while never shying away from the ‘lows’ in Dusty’s life.
Three-time Olivier nominee Katherine Kingsley is transcendent in the lead role, perfecting the soulful vocals of Dusty complete with signature mannerisms and affectations whilst also embodying the complicated insecurities of the woman underneath. It’s a remarkably layered performance, balancing the single-minded, stubborn, perfectionist alongside the gifted, visionary artist.
Director Maria Friedman is herself an expert in acting through song and she brings out the same qualities in Kingsley, who connects with the emotional heart of the lyrics to not just perform Dusty’s songs but also tell her story.
Act One provides a whistle-stop journey through Dusty’s solo career and path to global stardom; there are some clumsy, exposition-laden scenes to segue into hits such as ‘You Don’t Own Me’, performed in response to Dusty’s deportation from South Africa after refusing to sing for segregated audiences. ‘The Look of Love’ however, now a duet between Dusty and her long-term lover Lois, is an example of where the script flows more naturally into song and therefore feels more sincere as a result.
A stronger Act Two delves further into Dusty’s battles with alcohol and drug addiction as her star began to fade, before her comeback single with the Pet Shop Boys; a colourful, high-energy routine to ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This’ from choreographer Tim Jackson.
In order to cover as much of Dusty’s life as possible there are some pacing problems, frequently leaping forward to years in the future can be frustrating and makes it difficult to keep track of the passage of time. Joanna Francis as Lois sings an emotionally charged rendition of ‘Little By Little’ and it appears to be the end of their relationship; suddenly, four years pass and we are told that Lois decided to stay, after all, lessening the earlier moment of it’s impact. The supporting characters such as Dusty’s mother Kay (Roberta Taylor), manager Billings (Rufus Hound) and friends Pat and Ruby (Esther Coles and Ella Kenion) provide some light relief but the comic timing and Harvey’s innuendo-laden jokes don’t always land.
Minor quibbles are forgotten however when Kingsley returns to the stage following a poignant finale, to give a stunning rendition of ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’. It is a five-star performance in a musical that although enjoyable, does not quite live up to the quality of it’s leading lady. Nevertheless the potential is there to create a lasting musical tribute to a true legend and with Kingsley in the title role it is as close as audiences will come to the real thing.
Runs until 28th July 2018 | Image: