Theatre review – Dusty the Musical at The Lowry Theatre, Salford

Katherine Kingsley as Dusty, in Dusty the Musical
Credit: Johan Persson

Katherine Kingsley as Dusty, in Dusty the Musical Credit: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Utterly brilliant storytelling and unforgettable songs, Dusty the Musical is a must-see, sys Kate Houghton

Joanna Francis as Lois in Dusty the Musical, with Katherine Kingsley as Dusty Springfield
Credit: J

Joanna Francis as Lois in Dusty the Musical, with Katherine Kingsley as Dusty Springfield Credit: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

I am just that little bit too young for Dusty Springfield to have made any significant entry into my consciousness. Other than her song Son of a Preacher Man drawing my attention from the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, I know the rest of her hits only from radio play over the decades – I even managed to have zero awareness of her work with The Pet Shop Boys on What Have I Done To Deserve This, though I know the song well. A shameful admission I know, but what is telling is that I know most of the lyrics to most of her songs, suggesting that despite her name temporarily disappearing from the public awareness, her music really never has, and for good reason.

Last night’s show was so much more than I expected. I anticipated a light skim-over of Dusty’s life, peppered with her own hits and others from the time in which she reigned supreme – and did she reign. What I got was a story of a great artist destroyed by her own demons, interspersed with just enough music to remind us why she was so worshipped and why her fall was so tragic.

Rufus Hound in Dusty the Musical
Credit: Johan Persson

Rufus Hound in Dusty the Musical Credit: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

In 1966 Dusty was the top female singer in the world. However, with great success comes great expectations and with great expectations comes great pressure – and it takes a strong and confident person to survive that. Sadly, Dusty was neither.

The story of Dusty’s life isn’t unusual, but this doesn’t make it less tragic. Born Mary O’Brien to a stereotypically dysfunctional Irish family in London, she was always musical and with her brother Dion (who later named himself Tom Springfield) established a folk trio, The Springfields, which achieved massive success in the UK and hits in the US, the first British pop group to do so. Feeling constrained by the genre, Dusty went solo in 1964 and her first song, I Only Want To Be With You, made number in the UK charts and an impressive number 12 in the US. We meet Dusty at this point, just before she goes on stage on Ready Steady Go! and her nerves are almost overwhelming.

Much is made of her perfectionism, her relationship with her mother (or lack of) and her sense of alienation from the world due to her sexuality. She finds courage at the bottom of a vodka bottle…and we all know how that ends.

Often, in musicals of this genre, the star of the show is the music itself, but here it is absolutely inarguably the marvellous Katherine Kingsley, who puts in a stellar performance as Dusty, from her carefully rounded vowels (Received Pronunciation was a big deal in the 60’s, just ask your parents) to the deep, smoky tones of her singing. Her mannerisms, her tone, her look, her everything is pure Dusty. We watch as a terrified but passionate performer hits the big time and feels her power (notably in South Africa, when Dusty was deported for refusing to sing to segregated audiences) and as she slides inexorably into self-destruction.

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It’s a powerful performance and never more apparent as when she steps back into the spotlight after the silence of Dusty’s funeral, to give us You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, when she is Dusty herself, and is responded to as such by the audience. It’s a sensation I have never before experienced in theatre, and testament to the excellence of the story-telling and the ability of Katherine Kingsley to take you right into the heart of her role.

This show may be carried by Kingsley, but she is more than ably supported by Roberta Taylor, in her role as Dusty’s gin-swilling, uncaring mother (though her accent was more than a little dodgy from time to time, it took me ages to twig it was Irish) and the marvellous Rufus Hound. Hound’s talents are strangely under-utilised in the role of Billings, Dusty’s UK manager, but then he is allowed to let rip a little as ‘Ray’, a US TV Show host with all the yucky traits of the average white American male of the time, writ large for the stage. You can imagine…

Note must also be made of the entertaining double act of Dusty’s lifelong friends Pat, her dresser (who did exist) played by Esther Coles, and her make-up artist Ruby (who didn’t) played by Ella Kenyon. They help the story along no end, bringing fun - and some fabulous one-liners - to the stage. Dusty had a number of female lovers over the years and these are amalgamated into a single woman, Lois. Played by Joanna Francis, she is feisty, frustrated and eventually fed-up and walking. Francis delivers an excellent performance, from her initial flirting to her final fury and ending with grief, for a death and for a life that should have been so much more.

Dusty’s disappearance from the airwaves at the end of the 1960’s was largely self-inflicted and her come-back almost forced upon her. Thank goodness for The Pet Shop Boys, and when Dusty steps out for her part in their iconic 80’s hit the audience gives a cheer – a celebration at a come-back of an idol, not a reflection on the performance, this one, although the performance is flawless.

As the show ended the audience almost leapt to its feet and the cheers went on for a very long time. I have enjoyed many a musical and rejoice in great songs sung well, but Dusty The Musical is more than that, so very much more. Go, it’s an experience that will stay with you.

Dusty the Musical runs until 28 July 2018 at The Lowry, Salford.