Aldwych Theatre, London
If you’re going to stage an all-singin’, all-dancin’, rags-to-riches bio-jukebox musical, then few life tales come as tall as Miss Turner’s. You literally couldn’t make it up. Tina careers through four decades of triumph and tragedy: taking in snapshots of everything from the shameless racism encountered touring the south in the ‘60s and her abusive marriage to Ike, to her recording-breaking Rio stadium comeback-to-end-all-comebacks. Plus of course more gravity-defying wigs and era-defining hits than you can shake a tail feather at.
It’s a gift for the Tina production team, as the material is so rich, so iconic, that even though Katori Hall’s book never quite gets to grip with how to weave all these elements into a satisfying narrative thread, it can still stand on two [hot] legs despite it.
Act I is easily the most successful, following more or less the timespan of 1993’s landmark biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. Vignettes of young Anna Mae [Claudia Elie] hollering up a storm at the local church to the artfully-styled ‘60s psychedelia of peak Ike & Tina Revue are a joy to behold, with any narrative gaps filled by audience familiarity with Tina’s seminal biography. The selfishness of Tina’s mother Zelma and Ike’s rampant egotism are writ large, but Madeline Appiah and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith effortlessly bring flesh, blood and a dash of humour to their roles, with themes of parental abandonment and domestic violence nudging the drama into three dimensions.
Act II is more problematic. Focussing on Tina’s journey from Vegas ‘lost years’ to rock goddess rebirth, it never quite manages to find its footing – meandering into a thin subplot with future husband Erwin Bach [Gerard McCarthy] and reducing comeback mastermind Roger Davies [Ryan O’Donnell] to caricature.
The production plays fast and loose with catalogue chronology. Better Be Good To Me becomes Tina’s impassioned plea to Ike to calm his fists, Private Dancer a plaintive mediation on the soul-destroying cabaret circuit she finds herself on post-Ike. On one hand, it’s a crowd-pleasing decision meaning all the solo mega-hits aren’t squeezed into the final act, but simultaneously it derails the dramatic reveal of Tina’s ‘80s rock’n’roll reinvention.
Still there’s only one thing that really matters… and that’s Tina. As such, Tony-winner Adrienne Warren bears a huge weight on her small shoulders. At times it’s hard to square the diminutive actress [in early scenes she’s a dead-ringer for a young Diana Ross] with the amazonian Turner. But when she opens her lungs and takes full flight during the impressive concert set-pieces, you may swear there’s some spiritual channelling going on. In the roof-raising final Rio stadium sequence of The Best, Nutbush City Limits and Proud Mary, Warren mimics every lion-mane head toss and leggy strut with a ferocity that ignites the theatre. And when the full cast return to the stage to join her for an emotional finale, you know Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd is pulling your strings, but it’s so resounding joyous you don’t care. From the crowd reaction on the opening night, no doubt charged by the mighty presence of the real TT herself in the house, this is one that will keep rolling for years to come.