Dusty – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Eve Luddington, July 2018
Dusty. The name alone conjures images of the international superstar who invented a public persona, ’90 per cent smoke and mirrors, darling’, worlds away from her first identity as London-born Mary O’Brien, convent girl. Last night, fans flocked to Sheffield Lyceum to attend the latest musical homage to Dusty’s extraordinary life and career.
Jonathan Harvey’s script, referencing his interviews with some of her close friends, contains well-chosen key moments and attempts some explanation of why the character quips, ‘The less I look like me the easier it becomes’. The first half charts Dusty’s meteoric rise to fame against a tide of personal and societal barriers, the second her self-imposed exile in California and decline into despair and homelessness that led to rescue by loyal friends and a brief revival of her career back in London. The structure is easy to follow and sound if predictable. But, despite some notable scenes and lines, I found most of the writing pedestrian.
“Fizzing and disciplined”
Fortunately, swift scene-changes and highly effective projection, including some video footage, brilliantly designed by Tom Pye, Bruno Poet and Finn Ross are exciting and atmospheric. They move the audience into recording studios and around the world from Piccadilly to Paris, on cruise ships and planes, to Brooklyn, Johannesburg and Los Angeles.
Anyone who remembers the 1960s and ‘70s (it’s not only youth or age that might prevent those memories!), will be taken back to them by the costumes – a brilliant array of historical memorabilia. A few filler-scenes were demanded by rapid costume changes. Some of these were clunky but, on the whole, the fizzing and disciplined ensemble danced and sang their way through routines highly reminiscent of their time, taking me on a mini-nostalgia trip. A glance around the audience showed that I wasn’t alone in remembering BBC’s Pan’s People. I probably wasn’t alone in reflecting how far dance choreography has come since then, particularly in our ‘Strictly’ era!
But ultimately this show stands or falls on the skills of Katherine Kingsley who plays Dusty. She is, quite frankly, marvellous. Every note she sings, every gesture and artful pose, seem to ‘be’ Dusty. One scene highlights Dusty the perfectionist, a self-willed female solo singer in a world of carefully managed, mainly male pop groups, who baffled an entire studio staff by disappearing into a bathroom to find the vocal sound she wanted: Kingsley, singing ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself’, transforms her voice by degrees into Dusty’s trademark sensuous husk that reaches the pit of your stomach.
In that studio, Dusty’s belief in ‘what’s right’ made her brave.
So, too, in apartheid South Africa where her refusal to perform to a segregated audience caused her contract to be revoked and Dusty to be deported. In this show, one of the men about to escort her away calls her a ‘N-r lover’ (thankfully, a more outrageous phrase now than in the 60s), provoking her impassioned tribute to the slave singers who originated the kinds of music that so greatly influenced her style. In an over-written scene this is an important speech, delivered with deep belief.
Despite her outspokenness, fragility was never far from the surface, however many layers of make-up, costume and wigs Dusty wore throughout her career to hide, even from herself. Kingsley dons these disguises during a single evening and communicates that brittle vulnerability beautifully. Her moments of stillness amidst the razzmatazz of the 1960s and 70s pop world, embody her sense of isolation.
Scenes with the mother she could never please, a sharp-tongued, gin-reliant woman, played by Roberta Taylor, seem designed to explain some of Dusty’s emotional insecurities.
But it was probably a rational, well-founded fear of the social climate that caused Dusty to hide her bisexuality. Jonathan Harvey has opted to conflate several female lovers into one character, black American singer Lois, played by Joanna Francis. Singing ‘The Look of Love’ Lois and Dusty embark tentatively on a sexual relationship in a tender scene, performed with subtlety and sensitivity, which would have caused outrage had anyone attempted to stage it in the 60s or 70s.
Joanna Francis is entirely believable as a strong woman so deeply in love that she puts her career on hold to be with Dusty but who, ultimately, cannot live with her tempestuous behaviour. Francis has a belting voice, reminding us of Dusty’s love and admiration for soul music and singers such as Aretha Franklin.
Dusty’s descent into a haze of drink and drugs in California is played as a slow nightmare with Kingsley on a rotating bed, to ‘The Way You Make Me Feel,’ scarcely conscious of the multiple partners who occupy it with her. It’s a poignant scene.
Overall, Maria Friedman’s direction is visually impressive and usually efficient but the decision to stereotype some of the characters is, I think, a mistake. It seems to handicap some of the cast. Rufus Hound, a wonderful actor, is adept in his roles but his versatility is underused. He, as Dusty’s manager, and Alex Bailey play homosexual partners. They’re very camp and the affection they gain from the audience is condescending. It’s fine to portray negative attitudes to sexuality but misguided, I think, to encourage an audience to feel them.
The roles of Dusty’s loyal long-term friends, the imagined Pat (Esther Coles) and real Ruby, (Ella Kenion) are essential to the piece but these, too, are stereotyped as a comedy duo. Perhaps this is to lighten the load of information they spout: the effect is to inject some of the darkest moments with misplaced jollity. This is irritating. It gives the actors little chance to communicate true feeling and takes some of the soul out of the production. It is unnecessary and sad that a show about a woman who broke so many conventions of the time and defied classification, relies on rather cheap stereotypes to tell her story.
So, not an altogether satisfying evening but, even so, I’d see Dusty again, just to watch Kathleen Kingsley’s beautifully judged, poised performance. I am sure that some of the audience forgot the performer and saw Dusty Springfield resurrected. It was fitting that, after video footage of her funeral, Dusty – sorry, Kathleen Kingsley – returned to perform a final number.
images: Johan Persson