Review: Cilla, The Musical at Liverpool Empire

By Nigel Smith
WITH the huge critical acclaim that landed upon Jeff Pope’s TV miniseries it was almost inevitable that it would end up on the stage, and this adaptation, produced and directed by Bill Kenwright under the watchful eye of Cilla’s son Robert Willis (executive producer) it’s surely a guaranteed hit.


There has been much speculation as to how well Kara Lily Hayworth, who landed the title role through nationwide open auditions, would nail Cilla’s character. What’s interesting to recall is that the big persona and the voice that everyone instantly recognises as Our Cilla didn’t happen overnight, and it’s the gradual emergence of something recognisable throughout act I that really defines Hayworth’s huge performance.


Avoiding any attempt at direct imitation, she has gone for a sensitive approach to building her reincarnation of Cilla, as she evolves from coat-check girl to recording star, and the show makes us work hard for the startling dramatic payoff. Just as we approach the interval she hits us right between the eyes with an absolutely belting rendition of Anyone Who Had a Heart, and we’re sent off reeling to the bar.


When we first encounter Gary McCann’s set, it turns the cavernous stage of the Empire into that other, rather more claustrophobic Cavern. A talented company of actor-musicians transform themselves into a succession of bands, setting the tone for the jukebox aspect of the show. Their re-creations of the likes of The Big Three, Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Beatles are genuinely convincing, and it’s in the sweaty, subterranean world that they occupy that young Cilla first encounters her future love Bobby and is coaxed onto the stage. Her early attempts to find a musical identity are believably played out and her frustrations really communicate to the audience.


Carl Au’s loveably roguish portrayal of Bobby works well despite one of the least convincing wigs on the stage, and we find ourselves rooting for him too, especially when Brian Epstein arrives to steal his thunder. Epstein himself must have been one of the easiest parts to cast, with Andrew Lancel being the go-to guy for the role. He practically channels Epstein and the writing overtly highlights the brittle, uncompromising side of his nature.


The chameleon of a set smoothly transports us back and forth from the cavern to the recording studio and the London Palladium, whilst a couple of painted skylines over the White’s family home really wouldn’t be missed if they got lost in on tour. Nick Richings’ vivid lighting spills out into the auditorium, pulling us in toward the stage.


The show is long, giving us very little change from 3 hours and, whilst the huge variety of musical numbers has the audience quite literally dancing in the aisles, some judicious cuts wouldn’t go amiss to add more pace to the work. That said it’s clear from the reaction and the appreciative post-show buzz that Bill Kenwright has another hit on his hands. It’s testament to the confidence of the company that press night was on only the second public performance in the show’s World Premiere week at the Empire. This is a show that’s likely to be pulling the crowds for quite some time, almost as surely as Cilla herself, with 20 venues already confirmed for the forthcoming national tour.