New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 7th April, 2016
In co-production with Oldham Coliseum, the New Vic presents this jaunty take on the life story of one of the first superstars, Rochdale’s own Gracie Fields, tracing her rise from rags to riches, and then from riches to more riches. What sets this show apart from other biographies that tell a similar tale, is the revue-style presentation. An ensemble of actor-musicians populates scenes between a host of songs – the scenes are much like sketches, and the actors portray a range of characters. The lynchpin is Fields herself – Sue Devaney, graces us with a breath-taking performance, evoking the original northern powerhouse in voice and mannerisms. Devaney captures Fields’s down-to-earth, lowbrow stylings but impersonation is not the point. What we get is a whistle-stop tour of key events in the entertainer’s life. Like many of these stories, the first half deals with her rise to the top, and in the second, having achieved success, personal issues come to the four: Gracie’s marriages, her health problems.
Everything is handled with a light touch – even when she is hospitalised with cancer, a kind of seaside postcard humour prevails, deflecting from the drama with moments of heightened theatricality – if you sit on the front row, you may be asked to lend your name to a walk-on character who doesn’t have one.
Kevin Shaw’s direction keeps things bouncing along and the cast singing as they go – the ensemble voices are lovely in harmony, and each member of the company is a versatile musician. Musical director Howard Gray achieves a period sound from this talented band of actors.
Among the ensemble, Fine Time Fontayne shines, in his element as George Formby (complete with his voyeuristic hit song about a window-cleaner); Liz Carney is especially strong as Gracie’s lifelong friend – she also does a star turn as Edith Piaf; Jonathan Markwood amuses as Gracie’s Italian second husband – as does David Westbrook as her handyman third, while Ben Stock’s uproarious Liberace is laugh-out-loud funny, and Matthew Ganley’s high-speed Hamlet soliloquy is a wonder to behold.
But, inevitably, Sue Devaney dominates, housing gigantic talent in her diminutive frame. Her Gracie Fields comes across as a home-grown Fanny Brice, combining the ability to belt out songs with camp humour. She has her downs as well as her ups, but everything is dealt with in such a light and appealing way, it seems that life really is a cabaret.
It’s undemanding fare, to be sure, but as theatre-for-pleasure goes, it doesn’t get much better than this. Like Sally in Fields’s signature song, this is right up my alley.