Son of A Preacher Man is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week and taking us all back along with our multi-generational “lonely hearts club members” who, unknown at the start to one another, each make a personal pilgrimage in search of enlightenment to Dean Street in Soho, London in search of the now mythical figure from the 1960s of “The Preacher Man” and his record store. All this is set against a background of classic 1960s songs sung by one of the greatest singers Britain ever produced – Dusty Springfield.
I have to admit right at the start of this review a huge personal liking for not only Dusty Springfield as a singer, but also the songs that she recorded and performed over a long career. Many of these songs were created by some of my favourite songwriters, and some of the very best arrangers and producers in the business worked on them too. Many of these songs, like Dusty Springfield herself, are timeless classics, so this is a show that I have been looking forward to for some time and the depth of talent in the production, from writer Warner Brown to the cast, looked on paper impressive.
Nothing should have gone wrong with this production – great songs and a solid team behind the show. What then happened somewhere along the way to meeting the “Son of A Preacher Man” Simon (Ian Reddington)? I have no idea as this show simply is not working for me, and a lot of the problems seem to be at the show’s very core – the script simply is not that good or interesting. Each of our “lonely hearts” is from a different generation – one visited the original venue (Paul played by Michael Howe), for another it was her mother (Alison played by Debra Stephenson), and for the last her grandmother (Kat played tonight by Jess Barker and not Diana Vickers) , and although we have the beginnings of an interesting story from each of them that could have opened up into something very original, what we have instead here is a collection of clichéd story lines and characters that are hard to take any interest in and a story that becomes so predictable in parts that there are few (if any) surprises here. This is something that even the most talented of cast and greatest of songs can’t make up for.
Putting together a show like this where you are dropping the songs and their lyrics into a story line that they were never designed for is always a difficult thing to do seamlessly, and here it shows as the changes needed to make them either fit into what is required for the story, or the new “song and dance” numbers is often a step too far for the words and music to survive with any of their original integrity intact. Some songs worked far better than others here, but for me, definitely not working are two songs in particular “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and Dusty Springfield’s most iconic song “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”. A very personal view on these two songs I admit, they are two of my all time favourites. Burt Bacharach wrote something wonderful with the music to “Anyone Who Had A Heart”, and it is so carefully constructed that it rarely survives any changes well (few Burt Bacharach songs ever do). “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” with its new English lyrics over an Italian song melody, with that wonderful orchestral score is a timeless classic. The original “Io che non vivo (senza te) -"I, who can't live (without you)" by Pino Donaggio and lyricist Vito Pallavicini is one of the greatest love songs ever written from the 1960s and it just did not survive this re-working. This latter song in particular was simply perfect first time round, and a bit like holy scriptures should not be edited to suit whatever current trend suits today.
There are some moments that worked better than others. Our singing trio –“The Cappuccino Sisters” got some interesting song and dance numbers to do, and our main cast did their best with the limited options that the story line offered them and the new arrangements of the music (which did work on some numbers). There is one number where Paul (Michael Howe) is singing “Spooky” with his lost love’s niece Sandra (Ellie-Jane Goddard) and this version I liked, but the question has to be is why a singer like Ellie-Jane is being so under-used in this production.
I have to be fair here and admit that many of the audience around me were taking a far more favourable view to this show, and sometimes you have to admit that this one was just not for you. I don’t know what went wrong here as this was a show that had huge potential with the songs and where the story lines could have gone, and very good set design, but in the end, not even the son of a preacher man could resurrect this one for me.
Review by Tom King