Don Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber
Jamie Wilson Productions & The Watermill Theatre
The Lowry, Salford
October 19-23 2021; 1hr 45min inc 20 min interval
More than 40 years after the deaths of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, their musicals are still being reinvented and reimagined for modern audiences. At the age of 91, Stephen Sondheim's influence shows no sign of waning. Will we, in time, be saying the same of Andrew Lloyd Webber? Though an incredible composer, some of his musicals are now really showing their age and one-woman song-cycle Tell Me on A Sunday, created with lyricist Don Black, must surely fall in that category.
Even the undeniable talents of reality-TV star Jodie Prenger can't lift this show from being a collection of songs on a dated theme. It has a couple of exceptional tunes, it must be said, but the rest are distinctly average.
After a classy overture from the small but perfectly formed live band, the audience finds its heroine in a 1980s New York apartment. The band is masked by miniature versions of unmistakable Big Apple landmarks, doubling as lights. Designer Howard Hudson brilliantly uses these to cue changes in story and mood. In the foreground, designer David Woodhead’s apartment set is perfectly decorated with period NY touches. Almost too perfect, however, because a later move to the Hollywood hills never quite feels believable – even with a cocktail and beach towel as props.
The most important aspect of Prenger's character is surely that she has a name: Emma. In the original production, and most subsequent revivals, the part was simply titled The Girl. Unfortunately, naming the role doesn't tackle some of the problematic aspects with it. In 2021, it just doesn't sit right to have a show, written and directed by men, about a woman whose sole driving force appears to be finding a man and having kids.
Prenger sings Emma's story with fragility and truth, but on opening night at the Lowry it felt like she was straining on some of the top notes, and holding back elsewhere to save her voice. But the most powerful moments of Tell Me on A Sunday have always been the half-sung, half-spoken asides to unseen friends and lovers, plus the letters back to Emma's mum in Muswell Hill. In these increasingly desperate moments Prenger's acting ability really comes into its own. It was a joy to see her interact with the live band, her movements beautifully choreographed with the beats of the score.
The biting satire of Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad aside, the majority of Lloyd Webber and Black’s songs in this show have very little to say to a modern audience. Take That Look Off Your Face, Tell Me on A Sunday and It's Not the End of the World are genuine classics, but feel largely thrown away.
The most bizarre aspect of this touring production is surely the addition of a second half Q&A-cum-cabaret session with Prenger, musical director Francis Goodhand and understudy Jodie Beth Meyer.
As lovely as it was to hear a couple of extra numbers and some showbiz anecdotes from Prenger, it all felt a little thrown together and forced. More suited to a cruise ship than a theatre.
There will always be a place for musicals representing a time and belief set that is long gone. For many Lloyd Webber productions, that will require either some creative changes or innovative direction. Sadly, this Tell Me on a Sunday benefits from neither.