Cilla – A Lorra, Lorra Fun!


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Helena Gomm reviews ‘Cilla – The Musical’ at the Mayflower – and finds style and beautiful voices.

Images: Jono Symonds

Jeff Pope’s Cilla the Musical is a stage adaptation of his three-part TV series which aired in 2014, shortly before the singer’s death. It chronicles Cilla Black’s rise to fame and her early years in show business, ending just after the untimely death of her manager, Brian Epstein, and as she makes her big break into television.

The show gives glimpses of Cilla’s home life, the ups and downs of her relationship with Bobby Willis, her adoring first manager and the man she would eventually marry, and her closeness with Brian Epstein and other luminaries of the music scene.

This is not a gritty portrayal of growing up in a working class family in the north – Cilla’s mother’s biggest worry seems to be that she doesn’t possess a front door – but it doesn’t shy away from some of the uglier features of life in Liverpool in the 60s: religious sectarianism pervades everything from the football team you are allowed to support to whom you can and can’t marry.


(The Cilla auditionees)

Both Bobby Willis and his brother Kenny, who come from a solidly Protestant family, fall for Catholic girls, and their father eventually dies alone, having cut himself off from his sons. There is a seamy side, too, to legendary music manager Brian Epstein. Most of the action takes place before the 1967 act which decriminalised homosexuality, and there are references to the murkier details of Epstein’s secret life – as the musical progresses, he becomes an increasingly tortured soul.

The show opens in Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club, filled with young people having a night out on the town. Not only do we get to hear Cilla, but also The Big Three, the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers (and later on, when Cilla goes to the US, we get the Mamas and the Papas). This parade of famous bands seems extraordinary, until you remember that there was a time before all these people became superstars – and a time when even Cilla had to save up her earnings as a typist for a coat and shoes that she had her eye on.

The Liverpool artists really did grow up together and were friends and collaborators. So when Cilla’s dad (a beautifully affectionate portrayal by Neil MacDonald) who is on night shifts is woken up by his daughter belting out another song in the parlour, he is annoyed, but not surprised, to find Ringo Starr accompanying her with his drumsticks on their coffee table.

We are soon drawn into this community of close-knit musicians, so much so that we may feel a little smug when a BBC staff member later wonders how on earth Cilla got Paul McCartney to write the theme for her new TV show – we, of course, already know.

Given the acclaim accorded to Sheridan Smith’s performance as Cilla in the TV series, Kara Lily Hayworth has a hard act to follow, but she does it in spades, with a touching portrayal of both the singer’s vulnerability and her steely determination to succeed.


Her voice is amazing, and her renditions of ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ‘You’re My World’ are positively spine-tingling, though pretty well matched to my mind by Carl Au’s beautiful performance of ‘A Taste of Honey’. Carl Au makes a very convincing Bobby, talented in his own right, but utterly devoted to Cilla and prepared to sacrifice his potential singing career for hers.


At the same time, he is no doormat and the difficulties of their relationship form the basis of much of the show’s darker second half.

The set for this musical is quite simply stunning and is transformed, seemingly effortlessly, backwards and forwards from the Cavern Club to Cilla’s parents’ house, to the recording studio, to the street outside, with the phone box where Cilla waits to hear how high in the charts her latest single has reached.

A series of beautifully painted backcloths lends an extraordinary perspective to everything. The one at the back of the recording studio in Abbey Road creates the illusion that the studio is far bigger than it actually is, and the row of terraced houses in ‘Scottie’ Road appears to stretch back for miles. Particularly effective is a cloth with a simple roofline of chimneys which is hung above Cilla’s parents’ parlour.

The costumes and makeup are magnificent, marred slightly by the use of obtrusive forehead microphones. For most of the younger characters, sporting an array of wigs in the hairstyles of the period, this isn’t too much of a problem as the microphones are to some extent masked by their floppy fringes.

However, for some of the older members of the cast with receding hairlines, the bizarre forehead protuberances are a little distracting and hint at Klingon ancestry. When Brian Epstein appears with a Band-Aid on his cheek, it isn’t immediately clear whether this is to denote the night of beatings he has just enjoyed with one of his rent boys, or whether some of his wiring has simply slipped.

But these are minor quibbles. This is a show full of energy and commitment, performed with a joyful exuberance. The music is spot-on, with meticulous attention paid to the characteristic mannerisms of the various performers, and the final medley of songs had the entire audience last night up on their feet and dancing.

Cilla’s son Robert Willis, executive producer of both the TV series and the musical, says that working on the show made him feel still connected to his mother, and one of his motivations was to do something that she would have been proud of. Last night, I think she would have been very proud indeed.

Missed out? Plenty of more places to see it as follows >>>

03 – 07 OCT            MAYFLOWER SOUTHAMPTON                         02380 711 811 | MAYFLOWER.ORG.UK


17 – 21 OCT            BLACKPOOL OPERA HOUSE                             0844 856 1111| WGBPL.CO.UK

31 OCT – 4 NOV     CARDIFF NEW THEATRE                                    02920 87 88 89 | NEWTHEATRECARDIFF.CO.UK

07 – 11 NOV           NEW WIMBLEDON THEATRE                            0844 871 7646 | ATGTICKETS.COM/WIMBLEDON

14 – 18 NOV           STOKE REGENT THEATRE                                   0844 871 7649 | ATGTICKETS.COM/STOKE

21 – 25 NOV           MANCHESTER PALACE THEATRE                       0844 871 3019 | ATGTICKETS.COM/MANCHESTER

28 NOV – 2 DEC     BRADFORD ALHAMBRA THEATRE                      01274 432000 | BRADFORD-THEATRES.CO.UK



16 – 20 JAN            DARTFORD, ORCHARD THEATRE                       01322 220 000| ORCHARDTHEATRE.CO.UK

23 – 27 JAN            YORK, GRAND OPERA HOUSE                         0844 871 3024 | ATGTICKETS.COM/YORK

30 JAN – 3 FEB GLASGOW, KINGS THEATRE                                  0844 871 7648 | ATGTICKETS.COM/GLASGOW

6 – 10 FEB               DUBLIN, BORD GAIS THEATRE                          +353 (1) 677 7999 | BORDGAISENERGYTHEATRE.IE

13 – 17 FEB             OXFORD, NEW THEATRE                                   0844 871 3020 | ATGTICKETS.COM/OXFORD

20 – 24 FEB             NORTHAMPTON, DERNGATE                           01604 624 811| ROYALDERNGATE.CO.UK

27 FEB – 3 MAR      NEWCASTLE, THEATRE ROYAL                          08448 11 21 21 | THEATREROYAL.CO.UK

5 – 10 MAR             CHESTER, STORY HOUSE                                   01244 406 113 | STORYHOUSE.COM

13 – 17 MAR           BRISTOL, HIPPODROME                                     0844 871 3012| ATGTICKETS.COM/BRISTOL

20 – 24 MARWOKING, NEW VICTORIA THEATRE                           0844 871 7645| ATGTICKETS.COM/WOKING

2 – 8 APRIL NOTTINGHAM, THEATRE ROYAL                                   ON SALE SOON

9 – 14 APRIL AYLESBURY, WATERSIDE THEATRE                               ON SALE SOON