Theatre Review: Cilla The Musical @ Bristol Hippodrome
by Polly Hember
Kara Lily Hayworth (Cilla) at Liverpool Empire | Photo By Matt Martin
Cilla, like the real-life Cilla Black, is many things. On the surface, this is a feel-good musical jukebox of fantastic hits from “The Golden Years”. It pays homage to the amazing star and her legacy, citing her key part in the music scene and Mersey beat, alongside her contemporaries The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Big Three. Cilla is also a fascinating exploration of social mobility, drive, ambition and the damaging effects of stardom. A beautiful tapestry comprised of all these counterparts of a brilliant life, trajectory and career; this musical succeeds in honouring Cilla Black’s name in a hugely uplifting and feel-good manner.
The first act is comprised of vignettes in Liverpool in the early 1960’s, switching smoothly between now infamous music venue The Cavern Club where Cilla was first encouraged to take centre stage, and her working-class home above a barber shop. This acts as a fascinating glimpse into a time and a place that felt electric and exciting; full of rock and roll, with John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach as featuring characters. She meets Bobby Willis (Carl Au), who encourages her to pursue her dreams of singing and stardom, and eventually becomes her manager and husband. The second half sees her recording in Abbey Road Studios, unadulterated success, two Number One hits and her attempts to “break America”.
The underwritten Brian Epstein (Andrew Lancel), manager of The Beatles who also managed Cilla, conveyed the pressures of the music business brilliantly in a sad and stark manner, despite only appearing on stage in short, fragmented bursts. Lancel portrayed the conflicted character brilliantly, hinting at the dark underbelly of showbiz, which later consumes him.
"The night was a perfect shot of nostalgia."
Au is a fantastic and likeable Bobby, who portrays unbridled love and support for Cilla alongside a surprisingly raw idea of the compromises involved in supporting a star who is heart-set on her individual stardom. The play sets Cilla as the star immediately and does not allow for much other characterisation (save Bobby). Thus, the pressure on the actor playing the title part is immense. Kara Lily Hayworth played the part perfectly; singing every song flawlessly.
The costume and Gary McCann’s set design harked back to the Swinging Sixties in style; the most enjoyable moments were in The Cavern Club, with “The Beatles” on a raised stage, enclosed in red brick walls and encircled by dancing teens singing along to ‘Twist and Shout’. With brilliant live music and faultless vocals from the cast, the night was a perfect shot of nostalgia; ‘Shake It Up Baby’ and ‘California Dreaming’ at the start of the second act were particular favourites. Next to such a great selection of classics, Cilla’s songs had a hard job standing up to them. Saying this, Hayworth delivered show stopping and touching renditions of ‘You’re My World’ and ‘Alfie’.
The opening night saw two people in the audience collapse, pausing the show for half an hour or so while they were taken to hospital. There were manic, malfunctioning flashing lights in the middle of a touching speech from Bobby and his brother as he learns his father has passed away. Giving the tense and unexpected interval punctuating the performance, the entire ensemble carried on admirably, coming back on stage for a final medley, much applause and a standing ovation.
With feel-good music, a captivating narrative between Cilla and Bobby that encapsulates both a love for each other alongside love for their respective careers, and an insightful look at a successful trajectory that transcended boundaries confronted class prejudice, Cilla is an astute look at a pioneering artist and an uplifting tribute to her memory. Audiences who want to “twist and shout” and dance their way down memory lane won’t be disappointed.