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Dusty starring Katherine Kingsley – review at Theatre Royal, Bath – ‘wonderfully performed’

Katherine Kingsley in Dusty at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Johan Persson
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Dusty, Forever Dusty, Son of a Preacher Man and now Dusty again. The allure of Dusty Springfield jukeboxers is seemingly limitless. This one’s got a great team behind it, written by Jonathan Harvey, who returns to musical after his 2001 Pet Shop Boys piece Closer to Heaven, and directed by Maria Friedman. And it’s a fun production that romps through the icon’s life. But it needs to iron out a few problems.

Harvey interviewed several of Dusty’s closest friends for the show, so facts and figures are constantly, heavy-handedly jammed into the book. He also gives it a comic tone with Dusty’s personal assistant Pat (real) and her makeup artist Ruby (made up) like two wisecracking sidekicks from a Disney film.

Those two yank the show out of reality. That’s a major problem: its insistence on factual basis doesn’t square with its flatter-than-life sitcom dimensions and overblown jokes.

But there are bigger issues. Dusty’s blue-eyed soul owed a huge amount to black artists, and Harvey deals with this clumsily. He has Dusty explain her love of black music to a black woman – her future girlfriend Lois, a made-up conflation of several women in Dusty’s life, brilliantly performed by Joanna Francis – and Lois thanks Dusty for opening the doors for black singers. It’s cringeworthy and patronising.

Then there’s a scene where Dusty’s refusal to play to segregated audiences in South Africa prompts a white Johannesburg policeman to use the n-word. We know the policeman is racist already, Harvey has no right to that word.

On the other hand, it’s brilliant to see a lesbian relationship and a woman enjoying her sexuality so prominently. Katherine Kingsley makes the most of that, relaxed and natural, troubled and authoritative and elegant all at once.

For the first few songs her voice doesn’t have the smoky Dusty edge, but it seems like that’s deliberate: when she sings Look of Love, suddenly it’s perfect. To develop her voice like that in sync with the chronology of the show is a serious skill.

Rufus Hound puts in a solid performance as Dusty’s manager, and Adam Bailey as his boyfriend Morgan gives a lovely rendition of Middle of Nowhere too.

Tom Pye’s costumes are wonderful, though his set closes off the stage on three sides and makes it feel closed and cramped. There’s really strong choreography from Tim Jackson, culminating in a fantastic routine for Pet Shop Boys’ What Have I Done to Deserve This. It’s one of the best moments of the show, the ensemble clasping neon picture frames while an older, more ravaged Dusty comes on with a mess of blonde hair, eyes darker than ever.

But for a show about a bisexual trailblazer, someone who defied all stock types and stereotypes, it’s a shame it trades in them so completely.

Katherine Kingsley: ‘Dusty went through very, very difficult times. I want to go there’

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Fun take on Dusty Springfield’s life story, wonderfully performed but clumsily written