Pop:UNFORGETTABLE: THE NAT KING COLE STORY Garrick Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Courageously titled, Unforgettable sets a new benchmark for musical spectaculars without the spectacle. Look, no orchestra! Just a three-piece combo on the stage. And look, no cast! Just Clarke Peters doing everything.

Peters plays Cole and you'd have to say he does a natty Nat - from the slightly skewed vowels through to the swoony deep notes, calm and steady. But is a theatre the place you'd want to see him do it? Unforgettable started out as a piece of cabaret and perhaps it should have stayed there, somewhere we could all sit back, order another schooner of cocktails and carry on chatting. A bunch of tunes with a narrative attached, this is not a show which rewards concentration.

Peters created the musical Five Guys Named Moe and so, it would be reasonable to assume he knows a good time when he sees one. Then again, the programme notes sound a dim alarm when they inform you that he has a major backgrounding in mime. For much of Unforgettable, he gives us a very sophisticated version of what we used to call in primary school, "music and movement". Singing "Route 66", for example, Peters simply occupies a stool at the centre of the stage and carves an entire car journey out of the air - leaning out of the open window, tapping on the seat-back and so forth. This is hugely impressive in its way, though you might be hard pressed to spot its connection with the life and talents of Nat King Cole.

There's ample material in Cole's short life (he died of cancer at 45) for drama. The racism he suffered starting out, persisted even when he was established. Neighbours burned the word "nigger" into the lawn of his Los Angeles mansion. He was squeezed from the other side by black militants who chided him for allowing his skin to be lightened for publicity shots, for agreeing to play to segregated audiences, for declining to join the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. But Unforgettable assumes the mellowness in Cole's voiceflooded his life. There's no getting into anything awkward here. As played by Peters, Nat King Cole was a merry old soul, period.

Peters attempts to people the stage a bit with some cutesy caricatures. This business gets off to a bad start. Cole calls off-stage for his valet and automatically you begin to anticipate a new face on the stage. It is, then, mildly anti-climactic when Peters snatches up a pair of glasses and starts to do the job himself. And the structure breaks down completely at the end. In whose voice does Peters speak those concluding lines after Cole's death? His own, presumably, but it's unclear.

The idea must have been that the songs would be enough. And, it's true, all the favourites are here ("Let there be Love", "Stardust", "When I Fall in Love") and fans of Cole will find no fault in them. In particular there's a delicious version of "Mona Lisa" set to Edison Herbert's tender guitar. But what can you say about a show which is so comfortable in its assumptions about its audience that it leaves the title song until after the curtain call? My advice would be, catch them all out one night. Leave.

n Booking: 0171 494 5085

Comments