David Boyle, Victoria Hart, Kate Eason, Anita Markham
Actor, singer, director, producer, writer, composer, and a man who felt he never got the recognition he deserved.
Anthony Newley was all of these things and more, and so it seems fitting that on the eve of the tenth anniversary of his death in 1999, there should be a new musical about him.
Conceived by David Boyle (who also plays the title role) and directed by Pete Gallagher, Newley: The Fool Who Dared To Dream aims to raise the prodigy’s profile and to ‘help a new generation stargaze’ just as he did.
In the Highbury’s Gatehouse pub theatre, the story of Newley’s life is told cabaret-style, with three female ‘backing’ singers sharing numerous parts between them, and with songs that include newly composed numbers alongside Newley’s greatest hits.
With comparatively little dialogue in between, conceptually Newley feels similar (though not identical) to Piaf, which is currently on at the Vaudeville Theatre and also tells the story of a great singer.
Partly as a result of its format, the show sometimes comes across as too lightweight, and does not allow Newley to appear as so remarkable a man. At the start, it shows how he was evacuated during the Second World War, and has the good fortune to stay with a George Plaskett who introduces him to music hall and teaches him Shakespeare. However, we never gain any sense of the fear or emotional upheaval that any child would have felt at being separated from their parents at so young an age. As a result, too much of his early life feels like a jolly jaunt and this, in turn, fails to imbue the character with sufficient gravity. This causes us to pass particularly harsh judgement on him when we learn that he has impregnated so many women, because we have no sense of him being (for example) a tortured soul which would at least explain, though hardly justify, his actions.
The first time we get to see any of the real Newley is when he sings Funnyman in which he explains how he never tries to play the joker; it is simply in his nature to be one. There is, however, something weak in the audience being fed this point via a song written especially for the purpose, and not by feeling it for themselves through what they see of the man. Things do improve, however, over time as we learn more about him. Indeed, one incredibly moving scene sees Newley’s children asking him what he does for a living. This prompts him to reel out all of the songs that he has written and that other people have grown famous on singing.
David Boyle has already made a name for himself as a Newley impersonator, having performed as him at many venues and taken his show Newley The Singer And His Songs to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007. The main problem in his performance here was that no-one could ever have really hoped to reproduce so charismatic a figure on stage. As a result, we saw virtually everyone that Newley met being captivated by him without feeling his magnetic pull for ourselves. Nevertheless, there was still a certain confidence in Boyle’s performance that helped him to hit the high notes (both physically and metaphorically) in the songs, and certainly enabled us to appreciate his own respect for the great man.
Of the other three ensemble members, the performance of Victoria Hart known as ‘The Singing Waitress’ since performing to George Clooney on a yacht last year was the most accomplished. An up-and-coming star, this 19-year old’s few solos revealed a highly distinctive voice, and though she still needs to work on her acting and moving, she clearly has the presence to go a long way. The other two members, Kate Eason and Anita Markham, were also young and similarly showed potential. Eason played several male parts well, giving George Plaskett a countrified stiff upper lip, and Newley’s songwriting partner, Leslie Bricusse, a suitable flamboyance. Markham felt the least comfortable in the dance numbers, but absolutely nailed several character roles including those of a judge and a mafia boss.
And so, whilst no masterpiece, this show provides much to take an interest in. The respect that both Boyle and Gallagher have for Newley really comes across. As a result, this show really felt as if it had been lovingly compiled, and that went a long way towards making for an enjoyable evening.