U.K. Review: "Cilla: The Musical"

Adam Bruce

  • OnStage Contributing United Kingdom Review

Every icon has a story that inspires us all and stays with us since the first time we hear it, and the story of singer Cilla Black is certainly no exception. It’s been over three years since ITV’s hit drama Cilla was first aired and met with critical acclaim, engaging both old and new fans alike with the story of one our national treasures before her tragic passing the following year. Fast forward to the present and Jeff Pope has adapted his original screenplay from the hit television series into Cilla – The Musical, directed and produced by Bill Kenwright and now touring around the UK to champion the legacy of one of the entertainment industry’s brightest stars.

In case you’re not already familiar with Black’s story, we follow her origins as a young girl who dreams of being a singer amidst the rush and excitement of the booming Merseybeat music scene in the early 1960s, which saw the birth of bands including The Beatles, The Big Three and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, to name a few. After impressing manager Brian Epstein, she goes on to become a household name with the support of her road manager and future husband Bobby Willis, navigating the growing trials and tribulations of stardom along the way.

Cilla – The Musical follows a very similar structure to the television series it’s based on, albeit with a few tweaks to allow the narrative more onstage fluidity and thematic flexibility, which ultimately allows the narrative and its cast members to really shine. For instance, while the television series dealt with Epstein’s clandestine homosexuality on a much more subtle level, this musical adaptation brings it more to the fore with songs and narrative sequences dedicated to communicating the tormented soul of one of the industry’s most iconic managers, which contributes more broadly to the theme of overcoming personal struggles. This is a style apparent across the musical, with Cilla and Bobby’s relationship also being given more definition and shedding light on the singer’s personal conflicts, providing us with a more holistic view of the beginnings of an extraordinary star’s humble beginnings and defining challenges and moments.

Then there’s the exceptional ensemble of performers that bring this new adaptation to life: Kara Lily Hayworth is incredible as Cilla, with a powerful voice and sensitive portrayal that beautifully captures the singer’s soul, while Carl Au brings an enjoyable sense of supportive warmth to Bobby, contributing to the diverse range of voices present in Black’s story. Further fleshing out the engaging, holistic view of this new musical is Andrew Lancel, who portrays Epstein with a clarity that excellently portrays a workaholic grappling with inner strife. The entire company of performers craft performances that allow the adaptation to truly excel and come to life, with a tireless sense of energy and enthusiasm that clearly demonstrates their infectious joy in telling Black’s story.

Firmly buttressing these stunning performances is a scenography that supports and sharpens. Designer Gary McCann’s set is highly mobile and fluid, concisely framing locations in the narrative and immersing us in a variety of atmospheres and moods. These are in turn supplemented by Nick Richings’ lighting design, which serves to enhance the emotional power of the musical’s songs and give them real narrative depth and integrity, while Dan Samson’s sound design allows the era-defining score to both clearly resonate and communicate with the audience.

Cilla – The Musical really is a highly enjoyable piece of theatre. With exceptional performances and a stylistic sensitivity and sense of clarity that brings Black’s story to life, it is a truly fitting adaptation that the iconic singer and entertainer would undoubtedly be proud of.