Carnaby Street is a new musical, set against the backdrop of London’s Soho in the Swinging Sixties. It reveals some of the goings on at the famous Marquee club, the trendy fashions seen around the district of Soho, and some of the quirky characters of the time. This was a period of hope and freedom. When the world was changing at an astonishing rate and everything seemed possible.
Produced by Carl Leighton-Pope (and based upon his own experiences working in The Marquee club as a cloakroom assistant in 1964 ) it was directed by Bob Tomson (Blood Brothers, Dreamboats and Petticoats) and designed by Matthew Wright (Evita, La Cage aux Folles.)
Carnaby Street tells the story of Jude, a working class lad from Liverpool, and Penny (his on-off girlfriend).
The central premise of this jukebox musical is that these two young dreamers headed to London to find their fame and fortune. One day in an unknown year – 1964 is suggested – the kids arrive at the London street that was already famous worldwide as the focal point of the fashion and music scene in the Sixties – Carnaby Street.
Soon they meet up with Jack – a street -wise cockney recruiter who also acts as the show narrator. He quickly introduces the newcomers to Lily – a fashion store manager and society fixer. Through this meeting, Jude is able to connect with the rich and debauched socialite play-girl Lady Jane. And it’s not long before she invites him back to her place for some no-strings sex.
Meanwhile the C-ST band, a bunch of musicians fronted by a wild-man hairy ‘rocker‘ known as ‘T‘ is looking for a new guitarist. Jude auditions for the band, and soon becomes the group’s main attraction. Jack tries to organize a recording contract for the band with the sinister record label boss Sir Arnold Layne. His attempts fail, but socialite Jane agrees to ‘sell‘ herself to Layne, in order to clinch the deal. Layne agrees to sign the band in exchange for more sex with Jane .
The band is an unexpected runaway success. But ‘Wild Thing’ band-leader ‘T’ – who is already a drinker - starts to transform into a drug addict. He becomes unreliable and a liability. Jude is convinced by Layne to let him go. Soon a tour of America is planned – but only Jude ( with band manager Jack) will go on the trip.
Before departing for the the States, Lady Jane attempts to meet Jude to give him some urgent news. But when Jane and Penny see him off at the airport, they find that the new ‘celebrity’ has become conceited and arrogant towards them. Success has gone to his head. Jane never has the chance to pass on the important information.
Like of all these types of musicals – the show is only as good as its numbers. The good news is that Carnaby Street has a huge pile of songs to choose from. The bad news is that most of the songs that I remember most fondly (from that period) are missing.
And this is a big problem. I would have expected one or two Beatles songs in a show about the Swinging Sixties. But “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Roll Over Beethoven” are only representative of the Beatles output. Significantly, they were not Beatles originals. This seems a bit absurd . Even the cast agrees that “The Beatles [had] five singles in the top ten this week.” But they don’t explain why they cannot sing any of them.
And even if I could overlook the lack of Beatles songs, I could not overlook the lack of ‘Rolling Stones’ numbers or ‘Who’ hits. American R&B numbers were missing too. The only ones to get into the show were the ones that had been covered by ‘British Invasion’ bands. ( For example “Do You Love Me” the Contours smash hit - was covered by the Tremeloes, the Dave Clark Five and The Hollies.) But there are no ‘Supremes‘ songs in the show. No Baby Love? How can that be? And a Sixties show without Elvis is unthinkable. How can this show properly represent the Sixties if there is no Elvis?
Arnold Laye by Pink Floyd
(And , by the way, “Arnold Layne“ was a real character and he could have been a wonderfully eccentric personality to develop. Moreover, there are no Pink Floyd songs in the show either.)
The magical time machine that is used by ‘Musical Theatre’ when it creates these kind of shows must have been playing up when they created the script for this. The audience is vaguely informed that Jude meets Lady Jane in 1964. And that would seem to fit in with the invention of the mini-skirt. By Mary Quant in that same year. But when Jane sees Jude off at the airport – about one year had elapsed. So “Mustang Sally” (from 1965) makes sense – but “Son of a Preacher Man” (from 1968) and the biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” (also from 1968) does not.
I suppose it’s fitting that the cast can ‘Look Back‘ to music that was created before the Sixties – so jukebox classics “Poison Ivy” and “Summertime Blues” – which were formidable hits in their day - could be fairly recollected by the characters. My only problem with this is that these two numbers are from the Fifties. And we do not exactly have a shortage of material from the Sixties to choose from. So why have two 1950’s songs in the show at all?
Often the plot in this kind of show is just a mechanism for introducing the next song. When devices are clumsy – and the audience can see the light of day between the beams – some of the magic is lost. The numbers were introduced quite efficiently in this show though ( I’ve seen a lot worse – in ‘We Will Rock You‘ for example.) And at least the audience could build up some sympathy for a few of the characters. This is despite the nagging feeling that some of the characters were hastily drawn.
Particularly galling was the cartoon transvestism portrayed by Lily the Pink. (And no, the 1968 Scaffold song was not in the show either – in case you ask. ) Apparently Lily is the only character in the street to have half a sense of style. Luckily, Lily is played with extreme passion and theatrical razzmatazz by the super talented Paul Hazel. He, single-handedly, raises this show from the doldrums with his over-the-top performances, colourful frocks and smooth, juicy vocals.
One of the things that I most liked about this musical was that the cast members could just pick up their instruments and play. Most of the characters did so, but special mention must go to Phoebe (Katia Sartini on alto sax) Debs (Rachel Nottingham on baritone sax) and Alicia (Jill Cardo on trumpet) who were all excellent. The horn/sax sounds really added an extra-lustrous texture and a sleazy fullness to the output.
But overall, the show was a disappointment. The acting was crusty. The set was uninteresting. The dialogue (especially those jokes from ‘Al’ the newspaper vendor) were often cringe-worthy. The vocal performances were sometimes weak ( Arnold’s rendition of The Trogg’s song “I Can’t Control Myself” was insipid.) And sometimes the acoustics played up : All of the songs performed by Mark Pierce (as ‘T’ ) sounded bass-heavy and heavily distorted. The song choices were not great. And the plot was not memorable .
The slogan for the Carnaby Street Musical is “All you needed was a dream … and a guitar.” And maybe you should be sure of this sub-text before you approach this show. Only superficial people see life in this simplistic way. The Sixties were no different to any other period in our social history. Life was, of course, full of complications, emotions and anxieties. And things were never as easy as they seemed. In fact, the guitar was just another key to a whole new world of problems, frustrations and further entanglements. Never a solution in itself. The Wild Thing character ‘T‘ realized this early on. And so he tried to distance himself from it. Ultimately, it took him too.
I still love Carnaby Street. (The place.) Once a year I go to Soho and spend a day there. Just relaxing – letting the memories flood back. When my wife went to Carnaby Street – as a girl in 1968 – she bought one of those street sign plaques that almost everyone had – in those days - above their bed. It is still a treasured possession. Everybody wanted to be a part of the scene. They all wanted a slice of Carnaby Street. To take home. Carnaby Street was almost a sacred place. And it entered our hearts and became an essential part of our national identity.
Perhaps this musical is missing a trick. It never manages to connect with this deep-felt emotion. It doesn’t live up to the glamour and magic of the place. And it doesn’t jog your memory as much as it should do.
As a jukebox musical it is not bad. But there are better out there.
- © Neil_Mach September 2013 -
We saw Carnaby Street The Musical at the New Victoria Theatre Woking.
Mon 9-Sat 14 September
New Victoria Theatre, Woking
Tues 17-Sat 21 September
The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
Mon 23-Sat 28 September
New Wimbledon Theatre
Mon 30 September-Sat 5 October
Princess Theatre, Torquay
For further dates please check : http://www.carnabystreetthemusical.com/tour.php