U.K. Review: "Cilla: the Musical" at Leeds Grand Theatre

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Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Critic

Back in 2014, Jeff Pope’s hit TV series Cilla caught the hearts of the nation in its touching telling of the early days of Cilla Black’s storied career. The humble beginnings and hardships encountered by the late and celebrated singer made for an inspiring dramatic narrative, which was also shaped by the defining sound of the 60s and changing societal attitudes towards gender. I couldn’t help but feel the inevitability of Pope’s TV series becoming a stage musical, and sure enough, I was delighted when it was announced that the musical was embarking on a new tour after a successful run earlier this year - and I looked forward to seeing how the performances had grown and developed over time.

In case you’re not already familiar with the story - and of course the life of one of England’s national treasures - Cilla focuses on the early days of the singer’s career, where Merseybeat was king and The Beatles were climbing the ladder to stardom. A shy girl being pushed towards a career as a typist in an office, Cilla (Kara Lily Hayworth, reprising her role) dreams of making crowds go wild with her soaring vocals to the soundtrack of a changing world. Sure enough, her career takes off after some serious graft in famous musical institutions ranging from The Cavern to The Iron Door Club, and with the help of her boyfriend and road manager Bobby Willis (Alexander Patmore) and brilliant-but-tortured manager Brian Epstein (Andrew Lancel), Cilla rises from Liverpool’s skyline to become a national treasure.

Staying true to his screenplay for the series, Pope’s stage adaptation is perfectly balanced and weighted, capturing the delirious highs and crushing lows experienced by the star in her early rise to fame, while also giving the musical some serious punch with songs that capture the essence of the era and provide us with landmarks in emotional development. It’s beautifully woven together, and Pope perfectly encapsulates a memorable story of passion, drive and triumph. 

Hayworth remains at the top of her game with her portrayal of Cilla, bringing a warmth and sensitivity that, just like Pope’s script, captures the essence of the young woman about to embark on the career of a lifetime. With her soaring vocals and constant energy, there’s never a lull in the proceedings. Patmore and Lancel also bring unrelenting energy, tenderness and engaging presence to their roles as Willis and Epstein respectively, completing and perfectly portraying the trinity that would propel the singer to stardom. The whole company of performers that make up this musical adaptation are as strong and united as they were in the previous tour, building on Cilla: the Musical’s legacy with just as much energy and passion that is making this one of the best musicals that has ever been made.

The design team haven’t changed anything either, with a scenography that adds to the atmosphere and collective energy of the piece, proving that a winning formula requires no tweaking whatsoever. With the same slickness in set design from Gary McCann and the atmospheric vibrancy of Nick Richings’ lighting design, this piece’s scenography is robust and firm in its ability to enhance the performances of the cast and help convey a truly memorable narrative. 

Bill Kenwright’s production remains a triumph, and continues to remain one of my all time favourite musicals and pieces of theatre, thanks to the storytelling prowess of its actor-musicians, the strength of its adaptation, the detail in all aspects of its design concepts, and so much more. Cilla: the Musical is a thrilling, feel-good and incredibly well-executed piece of theatre that invites you to experience the legacy of a true entertainment icon and the power of beautifully made theatre. 

Cilla: the Musical is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 20th October and continues on tour. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.cillathemusical.com/ticketsandtour