Son of a Preacher Man | Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • 21 November 2017
By Conor O’Neill
950 plus souls almost fill Belfast’s Grand opera House looking to find some Soul as the city smells of damp and winter clouds swallow the bustle outside. In front of us is a brickwork backdrop and a neon sign. Pink, yellow and electric blue shines to our high right. Son of a Preacher Man is etched into the back of our collective minds as we wait for a show that promises so much.
And what can go wrong? Hell, before us is a night of Dusty Springfield classics, the cast’s accumulated CVs read like a who’s who of modern UK pop culture and Strictly Come Dancing host and often the harshest of critics, Craig Revel Horwood is at the helm.
Flitting between eras, we begin in modernity. In a Soho street, three strangers meet. Two by word of mouth, one by being there and feeling it, looking for Preacher Man records; the legendary shop where the man himself dished out vinyl and advice to all with ears. Now, the shop is long gone. The Preacher Man is dead, behind is a modern coffee shop. Ian Reddington (Eastenders, Doctor Who, Benidorm, along with two Olivier Awards) plays Simon, the Preacher Man’s son. Unable to fill the old boy’s boots he’s sold out and now runs the Double Shot café.
Old school soul man Paul is looking for first crush and love, Jack. Michael Howe is again a seasoned veteran. The Great Ecstasy Hollyoaks, The Windors and a multitude of West End musicals are just some features of his long career. Joining the forlorn is Alison, a prim and proper teacher turned tutor turned… well, that would be telling. Debra Stephenson is best known for her work as an impressionist. The Impressions Show, Dead Ringers, and Newzoids have brought many a smile to many a face. I didn’t know she could sing. I do now. Her voice is sultry and smoky, her version of Dusty’s ‘All I See Is You’ is perhaps as close we get to great Springfield moments. The instrumentation of the bighorns and sense of longing in her voice, quiet and fragile gets the biggest applause of the first half.
The last of the main cast is Diana Vickers, and another after love unrequited. X Factor semi-finalist way back in 2008, Vickers has proved to have longevity. BIG, The Duck House and The Rocky Horror Show all sit on her stage CV. So do does a pop career including ‘Once’, her number one single, and Music to Make Boys Cry, a top-selling album. Vickers’ voice is rawer, more untamed to the others. In all big numbers with multiple cast members’ lungs at full throttle, her voice stands out. Yet, with all that power it is the more understated songs that really move. The Singles ensemble rendition of ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’ and the charming reoccurring Cappuccino Sisters singing ‘The Look of Love’ keeps us going and hoping for more after the break.
A glimmer of light shows right from the starter’s gun as Paul and Sandra (Elle-Jane Goddard) lead us with one guitar and beautiful horn gem that is ‘Spooky’. The summer joy of this song leaves bleak Belfast behind. If anything, they’ve slowed this down. Lushes of horn lay back and twelfth fret acoustic chime as both sing us away.
Problem is it doesn’t last or move on from there. In the program notes writer Warner Browns states that the producers: “Threw down a challenge to me to write a compilation show, a catalogue show…” And that’s exactly what it feels like. The plot is fanciful, yeah, this is the land of musicals, where wizards, time travel and the unlikely are commonplace, almost demanded. But this all seems too hasty. The waitress scene actually made me squirm and feel sorry for the actors. Little asides like matchme.com, fig rolls and tea versus macadamias, a kilt-wearing hunky plumber, and an unlikely inheritance stretch and ask too much from the audience.
There were moments, fantastic ones at that, but overall a chance missed.
Tickets are going fast, proving that big names do equal big sales. Son of a Preacher Man runs until Saturday, November 25. To book yours visit www.goh.co.uk or phone the box office on 02890 241919.