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Tina: The Tina Turner Musical at Aldwych Theatre, London – review round-up

Adrienne Warren (centre) in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan Adrienne Warren (centre) in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Brace yourself – here comes the next mega-hit jukebox musical. Tina, which opened with a bang in the West End this week and looks set to stay there for some time, is the latest in a long line of big-budget tribute-band bonanzas. We’ve had The Kinks, Carole King, Abba, The Four Seasons and more. Now its time for the official Tina Turner show.

The legendary soul singer’s life story is put on stage in a production directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who took the reigns of ceaseless smash-hit Mamma Mia! back in 1999, written by Katori Hall, who picked up an Olivier for her play The Mountaintop in 2010, and starring American actress Adrienne Warren as Turner.

Warren is pretty unknown in the UK – this is her West End debut – but she’s a big name on Broadway. Alongside her is British actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Turner’s husband Ike, who manipulated and abused Turner during their ill-fated 20-year marriage.

But will Warren hold a candle to the iconic singer? Will Lloyd channel the magic of Turner’s legendary live shows? Is this new jukebox juggernaut simply the best?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Tina – Simply The Best?

A scene from Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan
A scene from Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

So, first things first, does Tina follow the formula we’ve come to expect from jukebox musicals – straight-shooting life-story sprinkled with classic hits, culminating in a show-stopping concert come the curtain? Or does it try something a little different?

“Nothing about the production is particularly interesting or innovative,” answers Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★). “It’s a standard bio-musical, although that makes it sound like it was grown in a lab – which, considering how much it relies on following a formula, doesn’t seem too far off the mark.” “The show is clearly too commercially important to provide berth for imagination or stylisation,” he observes. “This is pure hagiography.”

Most critics agree, David Benedict (Variety) pointing out a “a dramatic trajectory straight out of the showbiz playbook”, Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★) lamenting that “there’s no nuance at all”, and Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) complaining of a book that “feels like a brisk summary of events.”

Marianka Swain (The Arts Desk, ★★★) writes of “broad-brushstrokes storytelling and one-note supporting characters” and “a form awkwardly at odds with subjects that require more nuance” – more on that later – while John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★★) concedes that at times it “often feels like an exercise in box-ticking.”
“Humble beginnings singing gospel among the cotton fields, tick!” writes Nathan. “A violent dad, tick! Neglectful mum, tick! Then she is discovered by singer-songwriter Ike, battered and bullied by him, escapes and struggles as a solo singer and single mum. Redemption and musical reinvention arrive in the form of Australian manager Roger Davies. Tick, tick, tick, tick.”

But, for most critics, the evening’s unadventurous predictability just doesn’t really matter. For Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) it’s a “terrific show” that focuses on Turner’s “extraordinary tenacity and ability to overcome life’s obstacles”. For Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★) it’s “slickly choreographed, beautifully designed and roof-raisingly well-sung” with “an obvious yet perfect climax.”

Adrienne Warren in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Adrienne Warren. Photo: Manuel Harlan

“In the end, the audience gets what it has wanted from the start – a singalong to the perfectly reproduced hits,” concludes Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★). “Rather like the woman herself, the steamroller that is Tina flattens you into submission.”

What does matter for some critics, though, is the show’s approach to depicting Turner’s notoriously troubled marriage: “Is a feelgood jukebox musical the absolute best medium to tell a story about domestic abuse?” asks Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★).

“There’s no getting away from the fact that Tina contains upsetting scenes of spousal violence, not to mention a fair amount of swearing and frequent use of the N-word, he relates. “It certainly feels complicated telling this story via the medium of show-stopping musical numbers, and it’s difficult to exactly enjoy it, even though we’re clearly being invited to do so.”

“The more shocking the violence is – and both Ike’s abusive behaviour and that of Tina’s father elicit gasps from the audience – the more difficult it is to accept within the framework of a glossy musical,” agrees Crompton.

It is “an ultimately feel-good musical that doesn’t give much room to be an in-depth examination of domestic violence,” writes Bano. “In a week where Beyonce achieved apotheosis at Coachella, a year where Black Panther changed the game, an era where Noma Dumezweni is Hermione, there couldn’t be a better time for this story about a black woman who helped blaze a trail for them all.”

Tina – Here We Go Again

Adrienne Warren and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Adrienne Warren and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Phyllida Lloyd might be one of Britain’s most revered directors, but she’s no stranger to helming big-budget commercial bankers – she directed Abba jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, the West End’s seventh longest-running show ever. Has she crafted another marathon mega hit here?

“Lloyd’s direction seems effortlessly fluid,” says Crompton. “Mark Thompson’s designs, which use oblongs of fluorescent light to delineate each scene, flow with simple efficiency, vividly filled by Jeff Sugg’s projections, full of pulsing light and passing landscapes. The routines – choreographed by Anthony Van Laast who has a lot of fun reincarnating period styles – are dazzling.”

It is “both intelligent and consistently good to look at,” concurs Billington. “Mark Thompson’s design uses projections to create a whirling panorama of America, Bruno Poet’s lighting evokes the empurpled skies of Tennessee and the softer registers of a Monet-like Thames and, not least, there is the choreography of Anthony van Laast, which ensures the show is in perpetual motion. As bio-musicals go, this is as good as it gets.”

Not everyone’s convinced – the direction is “naff” according to Bano, “clogged with ephemera” according to Lukowski, and “never fully sparks into life” according to Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★).

But “the pull isn’t the book, or the set, or the direction,” concedes Bano. “Most of the auxiliary characters are comic and overblown. The design is unimaginative, the story skeletal. But in the end, wrapped around the bare bones of this extraordinary woman’s life, we watch a Tina Turner tribute band of supreme quality.”

Tina – Proud Adrienne

Adrienne Warren (centre) in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Adrienne Warren. Photo: Manuel Harlan

There aren’t any bigger shoes to fill than Tina Turner’s when it comes to singing, particularly when the legend herself is sat in the stalls on opening night. So, how does Adrienne Warren fare doing just that on her London debut?

Breathe easy. She is, most critics agree, the best thing about this production. Warren “absolutely storms it” according to Will Longman (London Theatre, ★★★), she’s “an absolute force of nature” who deserves every award going” according to Andrew Tomlins (Broadway World, ★★★), and she’s got “unstoppable energy and ferocious charm” according to Taylor.

And her voice? “She sings with a feral, uncaged yearning that does the show’s namesake proud,” says Matt Wolf (New York Times), while Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★★) praises a voice “as big and growly as the real Tina Turner in her lion-mane strutting heyday” and Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★) lauds a performance that’s “simply the best.”

“Her technically dazzling but achingly world-weary gale of a voice feels like it should be coming out of a woman decades, if not centuries, older,” writes Lukowski.

“The near-impossible expectation is that she doesn’t just ‘play’ Turner, but somehow ‘becomes’ her,” adds Cavendish. “Yet that precisely – magically – is what seems to happen. Her achievement is to honour the recognisable mannerisms – the pout-strut, the legs-astride battle-position, the frenzied mane-shaking of the lioness in full roar – but root them in a spontaneous, sincere, soulfully aching personality.”

“She’s more than mimicry and more than tribute,” agrees Bano. “She’s an unbelievable embodiment of the warrior woman herself, as if she’s been possessed. And, without any doubt, she is the hardest-working woman on the West End stage. How she doesn’t collapse with exhaustion before the curtain is a miracle.”
Everyone showers accolades on Warren, then, but there’s also plenty of praise for Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Ike, who, most critics concur, works wonders with a difficult part.

“The tricky role is that of Ike, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith skilfully counters his monstrosity by suggesting that he never got his due as a pre-Elvis rock’n’roll pioneer and that he was a product of a culture that encouraged male swagger,” says Billington. “You don’t like Ike but you begin to understand him.”

“Lurching from bumptiousness to fits of violence, the excellent Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is an unnerving presence and he communicates ably the controlling jealousy and toxic possessiveness of this Svengali-figure,” agrees Taylor, while Lukowski praises Holdbrook-Smith’s “demonic charisma” and Swain admires his “sexy, gravelly voice.”

Tina – Is it any good?

Hannah Jay-Allan, Adrienne Warren, Perola Congo and Sia Kiwa. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Hannah Jay-Allan, Adrienne Warren, Perola Congo and Sia Kiwa. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It’s a dead-cert hit, that’s for sure. As for good, that’s less clear. It’s as formulaic as its predecessor jukebox bio-musicals, lacking imaginative spark and proceeding through Turner’s life in straightforward fashion. But, when a show’s got such a thumping catalogue to belt out, and a central performer as magnificent and magnetic as Adrienne Warden to do so, does any of that really matter?

Mark Shenton: Our love of jukebox shows mustn’t be allowed to drown out original scores

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