Review: Dusty, Charing Cross Theatre

Published in What's on Stage on September 8, 2015

It may be the latest musical to open in the West End, but Dusty is already a little, well, dusty: it’s been playing in previews since May. Ominously, several directors, choreographers, and cast members have come and gone already. The positive spin on this is that it’s already exceeded its initial run; some people had to scoot for prior commitments. But, having seen this woefully misguided show, I’d bet they had other reasons for scrabbling for their contracts to see how soon they could leave…

Even Ellie Ann Lowe, who was playing Dusty Springfield in this safe juxebox musical of the soul singer’s life, jumped ship – now, the role is taken by the remarkably game Alison Arnopp. For never has a show been so disrespectful to its leading lady.

For many musical numbers, Arnopp exits the stage, so we can all watch some projected archive film footage of the real Dusty. Or even, a hologram of Dusty, brought uncannily back to life in less-than-glorious 3D. This is technically impressive as a party trick; theatrically, it’s inert. And it just seems absolutely rotten to deny Arnopp, flat-footed as an actress but certainly putting in the legwork all evening with the feeble script, her chance to shine: when allowed to sing, she’s got a great voice. I’d much rather have watched her groove through “Son of a Preacher Man” than a hologram.

Repeatedly swamping her performance with film footage clunkingly reminds the audience of the gap between reality and imitation. It also makes you wonder why the producers are bothering with performances at all – clearly they have no faith in the power of theatre to adequately recreate the magic of Dusty.

The script (Kim Weild, Duncan Sibbald and Chris Cowey all get writing credits) is schlocky, and we don’t see much of the darkness of Dusty’s life beyond some mildly diva-ish behaviour. The story is framed by an interview with her childhood friend, Nancy; praise should go to Francesca Jackson, who manages a breezy, appealing performance. Nancy is also cast as unresponsive love object – although Dusty’s lesbianism, and what it might meant for a female pop star of the era, is barely explored. With the songs left to do the emotional heavy lifting, this is paint-by-numbers storytelling.

The tunes, of course, are great – although the strange bleed between recordings and a bouncing live band also serves to highlight the sheer weirdness of this ill-thought-through production.

There are plenty of fab Sixties costumes, lending a certain camp appeal courtesy of designer Jason Kealer. A couple of perky go-go dancers liven up the stage (though again, the sight of them thrusting around in front of black-and-white recorded footage is just bizarre). The design, however, is lopsided: whatever you think of the holograms, they are technologically ingenious – unlike the awful pixelated, computer-generated backdrops. These are neither realistic nor stylised enough to be interesting, and obviously post-date the Sixties period. We’re in The Sims territory here; cutting edge, circa 2001.

Dusty Springfield fans can save their cash – you’d be better off watching some YouTube clips with the sound turned right up.

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