Thursday, 19 April 2018

Theatre review: TINA

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When I was growing up I had Tina Turner’s Private Dancer album on cassette, and there was a period when I needed to listen to it every night to get to sleep, so there are memories associated with many of her songs for me; still, making them the subject of a jukebox musical didn’t automatically appeal. But TINA has a book by Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Pris) and, having waited a long time to see another play by the author of The Mountaintop, it seemed silly to miss this chance when it presented itself. And while the script isn’t going to be either Hall’s finest hour or the standout part of the evening, the show’s biographical nature means it has to have a darker edge that puts it miles away from director Phyllida Lloyd’s most famous production, Mamma Mia. It undercuts any expectations of being a singalong from the start – the opening notes of “The Best” play, but within a couple of minutes we have the first instance of violence against women.

In events that would be mirrored in her later life, Anna Mae Bullock’s mother Zelma (Madeline Appiah) only finally walks out on her husband when he moves on from beating her to their children.

Don't cry for me, Ike and Tina

Adrienne Warren plays the older Anna Mae whose big break comes when she joins Ike Turner’s (Kobna Holdrook-Smith) backing band, quickly getting upgraded to his equal singer and, not-so-secretly, a much bigger attraction to audiences. Ike is hated by his band and entourage, nicknamed Lucifer for his ability to get people to do things they’re desperately opposed to: Like, having renamed Anna Mae Tina Turner, persuading her to marry him despite being pregnant with musician Raymond’s (Natey Jones) baby, because everyone assumes they’re married anyway so they might as well be. So begin many years of another abusive relationship, and the first act is the story of Tina eventually escaping it.

The second is a different kind of struggle as, having got her divorce from Ike, Tina is left with no contract and no performance rights to any of her most famous songs. Trying to reinvent herself is harder because she’s not confident in the songs she’s being offered, and record companies aren’t in any hurry to sign a middle-aged black woman as a solo artist. Things look better in her private life though, as she meets her future second husband Erwin Bach (Gerard McCarthy,) and confronts unresolved issues with her mother.

Warren is a hugely talented lead whose voice builds towards a familiar Tina Turner sound – never really an impression of Turner’s singing style, Warren instead belts out powerful vocals that increasingly throw in hints of the drawl and leonine purr that characterise Turner’s singing. The show was always going to need a lead who could belt the big numbers out without disappointing, but it’s also important to help gloss over the haphazard way the story is told: Individual scenes are well-written but the whole thing doesn’t hold together that well. Characters are constantly telling each other how much time has passed, which is necessary because the action has a tendency to jump forward a decade or so without it being immediately obvious. By the end the writers have pretty much given up on telling Turner’s life story (I had to check Wikipedia to see if she actually ended up with Rubbish Tranny in the end or not - she did, they're still married) but then that’s probably for the best – it may not have started as a singalong but if every audience is as well-oiled as tonight’s was there’s not really going to be much say in the matter. The show finally does climax with “The Best” before getting in the world’s most famous song about an immodest homosexual, “Proud Mary,” as an encore.

Along the way the songs are actually inserted in a way that makes comparative sense given they weren’t written for the story - “Nutbush City Limits” sung by a church congregation is an early success, although “Private Dancer” is a bit of a stretch as a metaphor for her Vegas shows, given the song’s actual metaphor is hardly subtle in the first place. Singing about the Thunderdome at your mum’s funeral is eccentric but hey, everyone grieves in their own way, and Mel Gibson is about as big a blight on humanity as death, so. There’s no “Goldeneye” but then, famously,for that one. There’s also lighter musical moments – Tom Godwin gets a scene-stealing moment as he attempts to convince Tina she should record “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” by trying to sing it for her. Mark Thompson’s designs give the show a visual flair that matches its musical power and with Warren's star-making performance at the helm TINA overcomes its occasional flakiness to make for a successful evening. It certainly lived up to the crowd’s expectations, and if it keeps doing that it should be filling the Aldwych for a while to come.

TINA by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Pris is booking until the 16th of February at the Aldwych Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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