Though Cilla Black is best known as a charismatic television personality with a show-biz career spanning over fifty years, what is lesser known is the story of her impressive singing career. She was a regular performer at the legendary Cavern club; achieved two UK number ones and nine UK top forties; and was the first and only female client of Brian Epstein, manager to The Beatles. It is on this early rise to musical success, her budding romance with songwriter and manager Bobby Willis, and eventual transition into television after failing to break America, on which Cilla: The Musical, focuses.
For fans of the ITV miniseries Cilla aired in 2014, Cilla: The Musical is not to be missed. Both have had strong creative input from Cilla’s son and former manager Robert Willis, who has retold his mother’s story thoughtfully and sensitively. They also both tell the story of Cilla’s early career, the stage show following the structure of the television series almost to the letter. Nevertheless, there is something about the story of Cilla’s rise to fame – her budding romance with Bobby Willis, her friendship with The Beatles and Brian Epstein, and her force of personality – that lends itself particularly well to a stage show. Opening in 2017, a year after Cilla’s unexpected death at her home in Spain, there is something particularly poignant about the stage show, too.
The set is both technically and visually impressive. The Cavern club scenes are recreated extremely effectively so as to allow the audience feel as though they too, are part of the crowd watching a young Cilla perform. The music, costumes, and lighting evoke a feeling of nostalgia for an era long gone, even for those of us who were didn’t live through it.
Kara Lily Hayworth vocals as Cilla were incredibly impressive, and her rendition of Anyone Who Had a Heart is a particularly moving moment, arriving at the optimum time in the story. Alfie is also particularly well sung, though there are times when Hayworth’s vocals fall a little short of reaching the powerful depths that Cilla herself was known for. Bill Caple, Joshua Gannon, Michael Hawkins, and Alex Harford are also deserving of special mentions for their performances of Twist and Shout, Boys, and You Really Got a Hold of Me as The Beatles; these are undeniably huge shoes to fill, but it is a challenge that the cast commendably stand up to. It is also particularly impressive that The Beatles feature regularly in the performance, yet never eclipse the story of Cilla and Bobby.
But Cilla: The Musical is not just about the music, and the relationship between Cilla and Bobby (Carl Au) is tenderly, and sometimes humorously, depicted. There is a clear chemistry between Hayworth and Au that was especially pleasing to watch. Brian Epstein’s (Andrew Lancel) mental deterioration, and homosexuality – which was only formally decriminalised in 1967, four years after Epstein signed Cilla – are also handled particularly sensitively throughout the performance, as are the problems Bobby and Cilla’s early relationship faced. Though the performance certainly has a “feel-good” element to it, this is not at the expense of the grittier themes that characterised Cilla’s early career, and indeed the wider 1960s, though more could have been made of Cilla’s career as a woman, at a time when women in the performance industry were valued far more for their looks than their talent.
It is testimony to the writers, directors and cast of Cilla: The Musical, that Tuesday night’s performance ended in a well-deserved standing ovation, and Hayworth looking incredibly proud, and perhaps a little overwhelmed; it was almost possible to believe that this was Cilla herself, a young red-haired girl from Liverpool, after performing in the Cavern club at the encouragement of her friends, The Beatles, and Bobby Willis, for the first time.
Cilla: The Musical is being performed at Norwich Theatre Royal 17th-21st April