Cilla the Musical is this week’s offering at Norwich Theatre Royal, and sets itself the ambitious task of doing justice to the early story of one of Britain’s most popular stars.

There is no shortage of musical theatre productions dedicated to the life stories of successful pop stars of the last century, and they are a bit of a mixed offering. Many try to create the youthful energy of young stars, with high impact production and dizzying levels of on-stage activity.

Director Bill Kenwright has taken a more measured approach with this tale set in the heart of the Merseybeat scene of the early 1960s that has left us with so many great performers and memorable songs. The show follows Cilla from her first tentative steps into the music business to the start of her second career as a relentlessly popular TV host. There is plenty of dialogue to help the story unfold, but this is a musical so there are also many familiar songs, performed rather well by the on stage cast.

Part of her appeal over many years was that she appeared to be a straightforward normal girl from a working class background, and this is reflected well by the scenes featuring her parents and friends. She always seemed to possess an honest, uncomplicated and natural style, going easily from shy and breathy young girl to to power diva in powerful songs such as her first major hit “Anyone Who Had A Heart”.

Kara Lily Hayworth gives an admirable account in the lead role, and I suspect is a rather better trained singer than Cilla herself was. She looks just right for the role and can give the audience goosebumps with her singing, particularly on songs that were so well suited to Cilla Black’s ability to contrast tenderness, vulnerability and strident power within the same tune. I can’t help thinking that the world is a harder place for young stars like Kara to succeed in getting their talent recognised than the Mersey scene of the 60s was.

Kara is supported by a competent performance by Carl Au of her devoted and supportive partner Bobby, who was later her manager and husband. The show makes much of the tensions of their relationship as he battles for her attention. He is challenged by her devotion to her music, which clearly comes first, and her close working relationship with the gifted but troubled Brian Epstein, her first manager, who she encounters through her friendship with John Lennon and the Beatles, whom he also managed. Epstein was a successful entrepreneur, but also a gay man at a time when the law decided who you could and could not love. Epstein is given a great depth of character by Andrew Lancel in a particularly engaging performance. Epstein’s early death had a huge impact on his protégées, perhaps more than this show indicates.

The twenty strong acting cast are nothing if not ambitious in this show, bringing us The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and many other stars of the Mersey sound. They are all good, and reflect a considered and effective effort of casting. The choice of songs is bound to please the audience, with a sprinkling of some of the most enduring hits from the 1960s. While a musical show has to skip over the detail of history we are also given a good insight into the chances and challenges facing a Catholic teenage girl in Liverpool who is determined to become a singing star. The show spares us the later life of Cilla, when the wealthy star seemed to forget her roots in her ill-judged political comments on occasions.

Like me, everyone who sees this show will come with their own opinions about her, but this is a show that is impossible not to enjoy. A simple and heartwarming story of the path to success, some wonderful music and a cast at the top of their game make this show a delight. I have some minor moans – like anyone over the age of about twelve I find it deeply annoying to have bright lights shone directly at the audience while you are trying to watch a sensitive and engaging stage performance. Good music does not need gimmicks. But overall this is a warm and satisfying show that tells elegantly the story of the rise of Priscilla Maria Veronica White into the phenomenon that was Cilla Black.

© Julian Swainson 2018


Cilla The Musical, Tuesday-Saturday April 17-21, 2018. Tickets £10-£42.50. Eves 7.30pm, Mats Wed, Thurs & Sat 2.30pm. Discounts for Friends & Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Audio-described performance on Saturday, April 21, at 2.30pm. For more info or to book online