Review: Tell Me On a Sunday, Bristol Hippodrome

March 24, 2011

[Reviewed for The Public Reviews]

Arriving at the first performance of this one-woman show, we were told that its star, Brookside and Loose Women’s Claire Sweeney, was too unwell to perform. So the audience, many of whom appeared to be there as Sweeney fans, readjusted their expectations and watched diminutive understudy Ali James perform this marathon of a monologue instead. I will always wonder slightly how Sweeney would have done in this challenging song cycle of upbeat pop and heartfelt ballads.

This show has had more lives than most cats (and Cats), starting off at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton festival in 1979, being released as an album with Marti Webb, and subsequently re-worked as Song and Dance (with choreography by Wayne Sleep) as well as being performed by Lulu, and eventually Denise Van Outen in its modern incarnation.

The unnamed Girl written by Lloyd Webber and Black back in the late Seventies has been slightly modernised, given a pink laptop, silk sheets and a bottle of vodka, but the catchy melodies remain largely the same. The role is a hard one to pull off, originated by such West End titans as Marti Webb and Sarah Brightman, and now seems more of a one-woman soap than anything else. The plot – woman in her 20s moves to America, tries to find love – might have been more of a novelty when it was conceived, but the 21st century updates in this production just don’t seem enough.

Ali James gives a lot of energy and consistency, but holds back a little in the more emotive songs. She does a good job with the fairly limited material; as Lloyd Webber’s first post-Rice collaboration, you dearly miss the lyrical complexity of Evita when listening to these repetitive, formulaic pop songs. As Sweeney, interviewed in the programme, says, “This show is hit song after hit song.” Good for album sales, perhaps, but the storyline and substance suffer for it. Still, the audience visibly stir with anticipation at hearing the well-known openings to the title track and ‘Take That Look Off Your Face.’

Some of the pleasanter melodies, such as ‘It’s Not the End of the World’, are overused, and one of the show’s most famous numbers, ‘Unexpected Song’, inexplicably slowed down and performed with little spontaneity or sincerity. The ‘Writing Home’ sung emails to the Girl’s mum are jolly enough, but the lyrics have not been updated to the point that they are snappy, modern or shocking, as dating a married man or moving to LA might have been a few decades ago.

Janet Bird’s stylish, moody blue set with hints of shocking pink and New York skyline is simple but effective, and the lighting and sound are slick with the exception of a slightly drowsy follow spot. The band, sat high above the apartment set, were smooth, mellow and nicely balanced with James’s gutsy belt.

The problem with Tell Me On a Sunday, apart from its lack of compelling narrative or naturally-flowing lyrics, is that without really stellar acting it simply becomes Moodswings: the Musical. The nature of the songs going from discordant argument to blissful contentment seems jarring if the audience isn’t sufficiently moved by the performance. I suspect that this would be hard to engineer with the material at hand, so Ali James does deserve praise for keeping the energy high, the smiles wide and the notes bright.

Runs until Saturday 26th March 2011


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