Dusty (Theatre Royal, Bath)

Posted: July 5, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Jonathan Harvey      Director: Maria F


A Girl Called Dusty still holds a  special place in my vinyl collection, even though I no longer have anything to play it on, so I can begin with a personal declaration of sentimental interest. This show was always going to bring tears to my eyes and, in the event, it brings plenty. There have been previous attempts to dramatise the life of La Springfield, pioneer for equal rights and LGBTQ icon, on stage, but the names involved here told us well in advance that this was always going to be different class.

Dusty, as seen here, is not very nice to know and she does not seem the ideal subject for a spectacular, feel good juke box musical. The surprise is that writer Jonathan Harvey and director Maria Friedman at first seem intent on making it just that, with big song and dance routines, choreographed by Tim Jackson. They even go as far as incorporating Springfield songs for other characters to sing, but they are only delaying the point as which the show has to reveal what it really is – a full-blown study of a superstar in melt-down, along lines similar to Pam Gems’ Piaf. Once the creators make their minds up that this is a tragic drama in which songs feature, not a musical at all, the show gains in confidence and, at times hits magnificent heights.

Harvey begins in late 1963 when Dusty had split from her brother’s group and was already riding high in the charts with I Only Want to Be With You. This leaves the writer with a back story to tell and he does so with some extremely clunky dialogue, but, once over this hurdle, his brand of camp humour works well to lighten the gloom of much of what follows. Esther Coles and Ella Kenion are hilarious as the star’s loyal right hand women and a sour-faced Roberta Taylor is a grim joy as her gin-swilling Mum. Rufus Hound is rather under-used as her frustrated manager.

At the centre of everything is Katherine Kingsley’s sensational Dusty. Her performance is not just about replicating the singing voice and the look, which she does superbly, it is about finding the heart of a petulant, self-centred, self destructive diva. Harvey offers excuses for her behaviour with passing references to a troubled childhood, but still, sympathy for her is hard to find. Seen as a controlling perfectionist and unreliable performer at the peak of her fame, she foregoes the opportunities offered by British pantos and opts for seedy Los Angeles night clubs, her descent into alcoholism, drug addiction and self-harming accelerating rapidly. She turns down the opportunity to record Killing Me Softly and a frustrated Elton John hands over Don’t Go Breaking My Heart to Kiki Dee (played as rather drab by Alex Bowen). Her love life is represented here by Lois (a moving performance by Joanna Francis), a backing singer who sacrifices her own career for Dusty and receives neglect in return.

Tom Pye’s simple but readily adaptable set designs and his bright period costumes work well. Credit too for Carole Hancock for hair and wigs. The stirring finale comes with You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, which is presented as the high point of Dusty’s career and it really wasn’t. Nonetheless, Kingsley brings the house down with it. The show goes on a short tour after here, with a West End run not yet announced. Hopefully, Harvey and Friedman will work on fixing the few remaining problems by the time it hits town and help Kingsley to get all the accolades that she deserves.

Performance date: 4 July 2018

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