Theatre Review: Cilla, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: ATG

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy Drama
Date: September 8 2017
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

This self-explanatory stage show based on the life and times of Cilla Black was already being discussed prior to her tragic death in 2015. Of course, this only made the project more personal, more emotional and more meaningful for her family, friends and fans. Combined with her fame and a career spanning several decades and multiple fields, all of this made Cilla one of the most anticipated shows to hit the Liverpool Empire in quite some time.

I was a little concerned prior to attending, simply because I wasn’t sure how a show solely focusing on the musical chapters of Cilla’s life could fill such a long running time (over three hours) whilst entertaining the audience in the process. Though Cilla had a fair few hits in her day, her back catalogue isn’t quite recognisable or extensive enough to base an entire show’s soundtrack around. Fortunately, the story focuses on her friendship with The Beatles and the 1960s music scene to enough of an extent that there are plenty of non-Cilla songs to fill in gaps between pivotal scenes and get the audience dancing and singing along aside from the main story, which is a massive help and a neat way to maintain audience interest as Cilla’s story is told.

Because Cilla’s story is definitely an interesting one. The first half builds up to Cilla (initially Cilla White before adopting the stage name Cilla Black, and played by Kara Lily Hayworth) truly making it via her first #1 Anyone Who Had A Heart (the show opens by acknowledging this milestone and going back in time until that moment is reached), from her initial excitement and nervousness about singing in public at The Cavern to her catching the eye of Bobby (Carl Au) and, later, Brian Epstein (Andrew Lancel). Although Bobby is linked with Cilla’s career throughout, it is the connection with Epstein that really allowed Cilla’s star to rise. This is despite some obstacles along the way, partly created by her overprotective yet well-intentioned and likeable parents Big Cilla and John, played by Pauline Fleming and Paul Broughton. The banter between her mother and father is typical of Scouse families then and now, which helps the one-liners to resonate with the Liverpool crowd.

The story takes on a more serious tone in the second half due to some personal tragedies, health complications and relationship breakdowns, along with the ever-growing realisation that Cilla’s success dwindles as fast as it rose to prominence, thus having an impact upon other characters unbeknownst to her (who, by this point, had developed something of an ego). That being said, music is still the central thread around which the show is based, and several songs are performed in line with the plot developments, or as a way of seguing into certain scenes (such as California Dreaming by Mamas & Papas, which opens The Ed Sullivan Show episode where Cilla is introduced to American audiences).

The music is outstanding. Not only is the soundtrack a perfect reflection of the era aside from Cilla’s biggest hits, but the performances are as good as you will get. Though The Beatles only make occasional appearances, the four lads chosen to play Lennon and co (Joshua Gannon, Michael Hawkins, Alex Harford and Bill Caple) are brilliant, and if a full Beatles biopic is ever produced for the Empire, this quartet would be absolutely perfect for the job. Andrew Lancel is very believable as Brian Epstein, and does an excellent job of bringing his character to life; words cannot describe the significance of his impact upon the careers of Cilla, The Beatles and Gerry & The Pacemakers.

I was going to say that Kara Lily Hayworth steals the show as Cilla; her acting seemed a little forced at first, but she grew into the role as the show developed, making her portrayal of Cilla more authentic as we entered the second half, and her singing is of the highest standard possible. She passes the all-important test of making you believe, if you close your eyes, that it really is Cilla on stage. However, I thought that Carl Au was outstanding as Bobby; starting off as a jack-the-lad of sorts, he becomes more mature as he demonstrates his true values and his underrated intelligence, and later some real emotion and genuine feelings on Cilla and family life. It’s almost as much about Bobby as it is about Cilla, so it’s a very good thing that Carl Au pulls off his role so well. Not forgetting Pauline Fleming and Paul Broughton as Cilla’s parents, who don’t appear often, but who bring a certain charm to their scenes, making their lines a highlight of the show.

I loved the settings; it was very easy to differentiate between scenes, with the backgrounds proving to be very effective. From the local, simplified home environment on Scotty Road to the bright lights of The Ed Sullivan Show to the upper-class, high-pressure surroundings of a recording studio, every scene feels unique. So, the back-drops do a fantastic job of bringing scenes to life, making certain moments seem more real. And although I mentioned earlier that this show runs pretty long (north of three hours from start to finish), I felt that the time flew by for the most part, although the large number of musical scenes not involving Cilla had a big impact on this.

On the downside, there were a few production glitches, with one piece of audio being played too early at one point, and at times, it was hard to hear the performers when they were singing. These didn’t happen very often, and I’m sure that such errors will not be a factor as the show’s run progresses, but they were noticeable nonetheless. I also felt that the ending was a little abrupt from a story-telling standpoint, and depending on what you’re expecting from this retelling of Cilla’s history, you may feel a little short-changed that some aspects of her career are not touched upon. But there is far more to like than to dislike about Cilla, no question.

In conclusion, Cilla is a great tribute to the memory of the long-time singer and entertainer. Cilla fans dating back to her 1960s glory days will truly love this.

Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding