Bristol Hippodrome

Cilla the Musical - March 2018

First night drama for Cilla


Teenagers in the 1960s grew up with Cilla Black.

Almost part of the family.

They didn’t know it then but over the next fifty years or so she was to become the Nation’s Favourite aunty: ever present, ever reliable and ever lovable.

She burst into our lives in the early sixties, a Liverpudlian chick win a nasally voice, alongside Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Beatles and, somewhere further south, the Rolling Stones.

She epitomised the rock and roll years.

Who can forget those hit numbers Anyone Who Has A Heart or You’re My World which both reached No 1 in 1964.

And as us sixties teenagers matured into parenthood so did Cilla with her mumsie presentation style in a host of TV shows such as Surprise, Surprise and Blind Date.

And then, at towards the twilight of her career she died, in 2015, after a fall at her villa in Spain.

But a mourning nation didn’t want Cilla to go and Sheridan Smith brilliantly reprised the rock star’s early years in a stunning three part miniseries written by Jeff Pope and first shown on ITV in 2014.

And this week an adaptation of that TV series, Cilla the Musical, is playing at the Bristol Hippodrome.

Directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson Cilla Black is played by Kara Lily Hayworth, who successfully beat off thousands of wannabe Cillas to land the part at an open audition. The 30-year old actress queued for four hours at London’s Dominion Theatre during the first round, making it through to the final 30 with her final audition coming at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the venue where Black made her name.

This is very much a show of two halves.

For all sorts of reasons I found the first half pretty disappointing. The opening was weak and for the first 20 minutes or so the dialogue was plodding and unengaging.

And although  the main players – Bobby Willis (Carl Au), Cilla’s parents (Pauline Fleming and Neil Macdonald) and Brian Epstein (Andrew Lancel) arrived on stage in their turn the uninspiring dialogue never allowed (or asked for)  much character development.

Kara Lily Hayworth didn’t waste any time in showing us her powerful vocal range with an early-on rendering of Zip-a-dee-Doo-Dah accompanied by The Big Three (whatever happened to them?).

The Beatles (Bill Caple, Joshua Gannon, Michael Hawkins and Alex Harford) thankfully lifted the tempo of the show with a number of foot tapping songs played out in Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club where Cilla was first discovered and Gerry Marsden (Alan Howell) and the Pacemakers rendition of I Like It was brilliant.

The problem with Cilla’s first half early songs is that no-one particularly wants to hear them and although Till There Was You, and Love Of The Loved were beautifully performed  they just weren’t what we wanted. The first of the much loved hits - Anyone Who Had A Heart – rolled in just before the half time curtain call.

The second half of this juke-box musical was entirely different.

Not only did we get the big numbers such as You’re My World, Step Inside Love and Alfie but we also got drama, emotion and characterization. Suddenly the disparate bits and pieces of the first half came together and coalesced into musical theatre.

We witnessed the developing relationship between Bobby and Cilla, the ups and downs of life in the spotlight, and a glimpse into what her life was like as she fought to gain recognition internationally.

Actor Carl Au has a beautiful voice and if Bobby Willis could have sung like him then a pop career would have been there for the taking. Although, as we know, Cilla soon put a stop to that! The love duet between Cilla and Bobby You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling was tenderly sung, heartfelt, emotionally engaging and one of the best moments of the entire evening.

A second storyline also unfolded as manager Brian Epstein, who guided the paths of The Fab Four and Cilla alike, dealt with his clandestine homosexuality and sadomasochism which ended with his suicide from an overdose of sleeping pills. Andrew Lancel’s moving rendition of You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away accompanied by The Beatles beautifully captured his despair and internal conflict.

The Mamas and Papas provided some light-hearted relief in this quite darkish second half with their version of California Dreaming (got the biggest cheer of the night) and Neil Macdonald nicely captured John White’s angst and concern about his daughter’s welfare (and virginity). His oft quoted remark ‘I was in the Merchant Navy’ became funnier the more it was anticipated.

The off-stage orchestra superbly realised the sound of the sixties to accompany Cilla’s vocals; the scenery was slick and seamless and the audience was transported from Liverpool's bars and clubs, to Cilla's parents' home and across the Atlantic to New York and back again.

What the mostly elderly audience would have made of Kara Lily Hayworth’s interpretation of Cilla Black I know not. For me, although she has a superb voice, she was not quite the Cilla I remember. I was never quite convinced that it was the Liverpudlian office girl made good. Never quite nasally enough in her singing voice with an accent that slipped in and out of Liverpool. She did, though, successfully grasp the grit, determination and fun loving personality that was the essence of Cilla.

Cilla Black is a hard act to follow – Sheridan Smith even harder – so it was a brave (or foolish) move to put the TV series onto the stage.

It could never really compete.

For all that said, Cilla The Musical is a generous, heartfelt show featuring some excellent performances as well as a magnificent Sixties playlist.

Worth a visit.

The show plays until Saturday, March 17. 

Click HERE for tickets.

Mike Bisacre

Footnote: I’m not sure how the finale panned out because just before the end not one, but two, elderly members of the audience keeled over with suspected heart attacks and the show was brought to an abrupt end with an announcement that it would resume as soon as the (unspecified) incident was resolved. People remained in their seats for a while but then began to drift off. So I don’t know if the show ever did resume. Not sure what happened either to those unfortunates who collapsed, although the elderly gentleman whose head was about six inches away from my foot while he was receiving CPR did regain consciousness. I must congratulate the staff (and members of the public who leapt over seats to attend) for their efficiency in the ensuing mayhem.

Cilla the Musical at Bristol Hippodrome

PREVIEW: Stage star Kara Lily Hayworth is Cilla in the new musical of that name.

She beat thousands of hopefuls in nationwide open auditions for the coveted role.

Her co-stars in Bill Kenwright’s show include Andrew Lancel (Brian Epstein); Carl Au (Bobby); Amy Bridges (Rose Willis); Gemma Brodrick-Bower (Pauline); Bill Caple (Ringo Starr); Tom Christian (Kenny Willis); Tom Dunlea (Hutch); Pauline Fleming (Big Cilla); Joshua Gannon (Paul McCartney); Billie Hardy (Pat); Michael Hawkins (John Lennon); and Neil MacDonald (John White).

Cilla - The Musical is the spectacular and heart-warming musical adaptation of the critically acclaimed hit ITV television series by Bafta-Award winner Jeff Pope (The Moorside, Philomena, From The Cradle To The Grave, Mrs Biggs and the acclaimed Little Boy Blue which had ITV audiences glued to their screens).

It tells the extraordinary story of the ordinary girl from Liverpool whose teenage dreams of stardom lead her to becoming one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers of all time.

It’s an introduction by a young John Lennon to music mogul Brian Epstein that changes Priscilla White’s life forever.

By the age of just 25 she would be known as singer and TV star Cilla Black, number one selling artist and at the fore-front of the Brit-Pop music scene. The musical score is the ultimate soundtrack to the 60s including Cilla’s greatest hits Anyone Who Had a Heart, Alfie and Something Tells Me, Twist and Shout by the Beatles, California Dreamin by The Mamas and The Papas’ and many more.

The musical reunites Tom Dunlea, Michael Hawkins and Gemma Brodrick-Bower, all of whom starred in Jeff Pope’s original ITV mini-series Cilla, on which the musical is based.