Book: Warner Brown
Director and Choreographer: Craig Revel Horwood
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
In the London of the Swinging 60s, we’re told, there was a legendary record shop. The shop was a magnet for the in-crowd, and the owner discovered he had a talent as an Agony Uncle, dispensing relationship advice even as he advised on the best of the latest batch of record releases. Maybe that’s why he was known as The Preacher Man. Or maybe it was because that was also the name of his shop – after all, this was the 60s, all shops had weird names, right? And if this sounds like a highly convoluted way of shoe-horning the song Son of a Preacher Man into some sort of story, well, that is also pretty accurate.
In the present, we meet three people, all at a crossroads, all suffering because of love. Paul was one of the 60s in-crowd, visiting The Preacher Man and mooning over another regular there. They’ve long since gone their separate ways, but Paul still yearns for what might have been. Alison is a widowed teacher who can’t decide if the feelings she now has are appropriate or not. Her mother told her all about The Preacher Man. Kat, the youngest of the trio, has been snubbed by a match provided by a website. She was brought up by her recently deceased grandmother, who also told her about The Preacher Man.
As the show opens, each is drawn, compelled, to see whether The Preacher Man is still there and whether its proprietor is still in the business of sorting out relationships.
They first meet outside an uninspiring coffee shop run by Simon, The Preacher Man’s son, with the aid of the Cappuccino Sisters who bring a touch of 40s glamour as they sing while serving coffee, also providing backing music to several of the show’s pivotal moments. Snubbing most social interaction, Simon seems to have secrets of his own
Our trio approach him – maybe he can help? After a chat with his deceased father, he agrees to try. But he’s not his dad – can he actually help or will his meddling make things worse?
The music consists of songs from a range of songwriters but all associated with Dusty Springfield. The principals and ensemble cast of actor-musicians bring the choreography of Craig Revel Horwood to vibrant life. One cannot fault the musical numbers even if some do appear to have been parachuted in with little reason other than to make the time up. Nevertheless, some are delivered with unexpected poignancy: I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself and A House Is Not A Home bring a lump, unbidden, to the throat. But Warner Brown’s disjointed and clunky book drains pace from the proceedings as it contorts itself in order to accommodate the next number, piling unlikely coincidences into a wobbly edifice, stretching the suspension of disbelief well beyond its elastic limit.
Michael Howe plays Paul with a straight bat, oozing a sincere charm underpinned by angst. One can believe his backstory as he seeks to find his teenage crush. Diana Vickers’ Kat provides much of the humour in the story. Debra Stephenson’s Alison never quite gets to shine and demonstrate her inner conflict. All three have fine singing voices and, while there may be the odd duff note, they ensure the production numbers really work. Ian Reddington is Simon, bringing some depth to a character adrift and not entirely in control of his destiny, one who tries to do the right thing but is unsure if he can.
This performance was early in the run and there were some teething problems with occasional hesitancy over lines apparent and issues with microphones not always being open when required.
So an evening of contradictions. The superb quality of the musical numbers, their choreography and delivery, lifts it above the usual jukebox musical, but the risible book resists the best efforts of even Revel Horwood and this talented cast to make it work.
Runs until 16 September 2017 and on tour | Image: Contributed