‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’ Act III, Scene V, As You Like It
Following the success of Jeff Pope’s 2014 TV drama Cilla, I had high hopes for this brand new musical adaption of Pope’s writing, chartering the rise to fame of 1960s icon Cilla Black. Cramming in twenty-eight songs from Cilla and her 60s contemporaries, the musical certainly succeeds in telling Cilla’s story on an epic scale. The show’s story is equally as engaging, following Priscilla White from her teenage years at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, to her global success in America with record mogul Brian Epstein. Despite a complex narrative, Pope’s honest writing and Cilla’s powerful lyrics ground the musical, telling the central romance between Cilla and Bobby Willis with humanity.
Portraying a biographical role on stage, it would have been easy to veer towards impersonation, however fortunately Kara Lily Hayworth owns the role of Cilla effortlessly. Her perfected scouse accent is precedent to a faultless, powerhouse vocal, astounding the audience consistently from the early Beatles hits, to the later ballad numbers. Cilla’s hit, Anyone Who Had a Heart - set in the Abbey Road recording studios - was a definitive crowd pleasing highlight of the show and rousing conclusion to the first half. Hayworth brings fragility and soul which are both necessary for conveying Cilla’s emotions in the musical format. She transitions from a vulnerable teenager to a woman who commands the set of her own TV show, all whilst maintaining the iconic idiosyncrasies of Cilla’s vocal and character. This was particularly pleasing for those whom may have grown up hearing her songs.
The scenes both in the Cavern Club and Abbey Road Studios allow the ensemble (mainly comprised of actor-musicians) to perform the 1960s hits from Cilla’s backstory with live music and orchestration. Gary McCann’s set design seamlessly transitioned between the simplicity of Cilla’s home life, and lively numbers by The Beatles, The Big Three and The Mammas and the Pappas. The ensemble’s talent gave an authenticity to these hits; a strong sense of humanity was created, similar to the ensemble in the Broadway musical, Once.
Cilla’s ensemble were an unexpected joy, with Michael Hawkins’ acoustic version of You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away giving equally ironic and heartbreaking insight into the record industry. It is a shame that these characters, along with Brian Epstein’s character, are not given time to develop further. Epstein’s downfall particularly seemed slightly sudden and perhaps out of place. However, Carl Au’s (Bobby) scenes with Cilla explored their relationship superbly. Hayworth and Au complimented each other soundly and the fragility and restraint shown during Bobby’s later scenes with brother Kenny Willis (Tom Christian) provided well-judged moments of subtly, which contrasted with the joy of fame and success.
Despite some mishaps with the lighting rig in the second half and two medical emergencies (meaning the show had to be halted before its finale), the cast ensured the show maintained its energy once it resumed. Cilla’s story of determination was driven by Hayworth’s powerful performance, and resonated to the audience - young and old alike.