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Beautiful – The Carole King Musical

Gary Trainor (Don Kirshner), Ian McIntosh (Barry Mann), Lorna Want (Cynthia Weil) and Katie Brayben (Carole King) in Beautiful, The Carole King Musical at the Aldwych Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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With Mamma Mia! on one end of the Aldwych crescent, the other is now occupied by Beautiful, an import of the Broadway hit that’s billed as the Carole King musical. It is in fact also about her former husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin and fellow writing couple Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. So this corner of London offers a hit retrospective of some of pop music’s finest moments from the 1960s to the 80s.

While Mamma Mia! famously freshens up its Abba songs by folding them into an imagined narrative, Beautiful follows the Jersey Boys route of using the lives of its songwriters to tell their biographical stories. So its warm bath of nostalgic indulgence is sometimes bubbly but often too cornily embraced, with scenes of their offstage struggles with musical competitiveness and marital betrayal. A scene where the four friends play strip poker is particularly excruciating.

If Douglas McGrath’s by-numbers book is otherwise all too conventional, there is at least the compensating pleasures of hearing some truly great songs. And in the midst of this decidedly three-star show, there’s a five-star winner of a performance from the previously unheralded Katie Brayben as King. The show, framed by her 1971 Carnegie Hall concert, opens with her seated at a solo piano performing So Far Away and ends in the same spot with her singing Beautiful, with a tumble of auburn hair falling over her shoulders. It’s a powerful, poignant sight, putting her centre stage again where she belongs.

McGrath’s book and director Marc Bruni insist on colouring in a background – against a series of over-emphatic receding light boxes by designer Derek McLane – that’s meant to enhance our appreciation of her achievements but in fact regularly dissipates it. Songs like Will You Love Me Tomorrow and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman tell their own stories powerfully enough.

Dates: February 10-June 13, PN February 24

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All-too-conventional bio-musical, thrillingly elevated by Katie Brayben’s stellar performance as Carole King