The 1984 album Private Dancer marked an era of reinvention for singer Tina Turner, introducing her soaring, soulful rock and roll vocal to a whole new generation. With her new contract with Capitol Records and a powerful stage persona, this wild woman of rock was finally cementing an international reputation as an artist in her own right. Less than ten years earlier, she had very publicly walked out of her personal and professional relationship with Ike Turner, her husband and mentor, finally bringing to an end years of physical and mental abuse.
Emi Wokoma (Tina Turner) in Soul Sister at the Savoy theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Soul Sister is an autobiographical piece that offers a narrative take on the couple’s tempestuous relationship in much the same way as the 1993 movie What’s Love Got To Do With It? Whereas the movie depicts Ike Turner primarily as a brutal wife beater, Soul Sister attempts to restore a sense of balance, giving credit to Ike Turner’s drive, talent and determination to succeed at a time when racism and discrimination were rife.
Authors John Miller and Pete Brookes’ script might be an unauthorised biography but quite how they make it such a bland affair is beyond comprehension. The book, incorporating slick narrative shortcuts of back projection and recorded voice-overs, is painfully thin on motivation, drama and rather bizarrely under the circumstances, conflict too.
What is lacking in the script is more than made up for with a strong, central performance from Emi Wokoma as Tina Turner. Wokoma manages her metamorphosis from Anna Mae Bullock, the little girl from Nutbush, Tennessee, to international superstar with aplomb. The hits, such as the career-changing River Deep, Mountain High, Proud Mary and I Can’t Stand The Rain are all given the treatment they deserve, featuring Wokoma’s powerful vocals and Jason Pennycooke’s ebullient choreography, recreating the frenzied shimmying of Tina and the original Ikettes. Quieter moments are few and far between but Wokoma’s tender rendition of Lennon-McCartney’s Help, originally recorded by Turner in 1984, lends a welcome narrative aspect to the show.
Chris Tummings’ Ike Turner fairs less well, and although he leads his Kings Of Rhythm in a rousing Rocket 88 early in the show, the meagreness of book leaves Tummings without much to hang a characterisation on. There is little menace, even less in terms of a struggle, and his descent into cocaine addiction raises giggles from the audience rather than foreshadowing the drama. The rest of the remarkably small but effective cast play all the peripheral roles, with the men making up the members of the band, led by musical director Sean Green on keyboard.
The two credited directors Pete Brooks and Bob Eaton ensure that the pace never drags and Simon Wainwright’s video designs, projecting pre-recorded actors and scenery onto the stage are a satisfactory and cost-effective way of covering holes in the narrative. The highlights here, however, are the musical routines, featuring Wokoma as a glittering centrepiece in what is in effect an upscale, highly entertaining tribute show.