In one of my favourite not-too-bad movies, The Big Circus, Victor Mature plays a world-weary impresario and Peter Lorre a twitchy, neurotic clown, as romantic and shady plot strands unravel under the high wire.
David Essex does something similar in his new musical designed to reprise a lifetime of pop-tastic hits from "Hold Me Close" to "Silver Dream Machine". He plays Levi Lee, boss of a travelling fairground that has fallen on hard times, unable to revive the Wall of Death as a star attraction, but keen to keep the show on the road and the "family" together.
The neurotic clown in this instance is Slow Jonny on the rifle range, whom Tim Newman invests with one of those subnormal demeanours known only to actors, and the business threat comes from a gang of East End thugs led by Christopher Timothy whose henchman in black leathers flexes his pecs, ears and biceps as if stuck in a Bob Hoskins-lookalike competition.
Chief thug's daughter falls for Levi's son, a Jack-the-lad who is a version of how Essex as Levi would like to see himself ("The older I get the better I was") when he had dark curly hair and was dubbed the daredevil king.
This lets in the bike motif, and the two fairly irresistible closer numbers in each half, "Gonna Make You a Star," and "Silver Dream Machine." En route, of course, we "Rock On," led by a pounding bass guitar.
David Gilmore's production may not have the sinister fairground glamour and technical pizzazz of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Coney Island melodrama across town, Love Never Dies but it does have its own quality of London pride, Essex (as in the place, and the star) nostalgia and delight in making pop music.
Essex himself is so laid back as to be virtually horizontal, but he always had something of the Gypsy about him, and the singing voice, though fading, retains enough of its distinctive cracked parchment properties. With librettist Jon Conway, he's cleverly devised another way of touring his concert show without having to sing everything himself.
The back story is that he once had an affair with Rosa (Louise English), the fortune teller, and this resulted in his wife's fatal accident on the Wall of Death. His son Jack (an extremely likeable newcomer, Michael Pickering) is making the same mistake, threatening his love for Rosa's daughter, Mary (Susan Hallam-Wright), with the glossy distraction of Nicola Brazil's blonde bombshell, Alice; there's even an away day to Doncaster in the mix.
There's also a father/son theme ("It must be harder to be a dad than a hero") played out not only between Levi and Jack, but also between Levi and Slow Jonny, who's an orphan. A lot of this, though corny, sounds heartfelt, even confessional.
The carousel of the fair – coloured lights, prancing horses, dodgem cars, candy floss, cuddly toys – is tempered with a strain of melancholy first established in one of Essex's most downbeat hits, "A Winter's Tale," written by Tim Rice and Mike Batt, and reiterated in his own "You're in My Heart", a beautiful ballad done as a poignant quintet for the leading characters.
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