One can recall long debates by aficionados of such things about the merits and flaws of the earliest recordings of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s one-woman show, Tell Me On A Sunday. Marti Webb or Bernadette Peters? Who had more heart? Who had the better voice? No one argued about the virtues of the piece; the question was: which was the best version?
Since those days, performers such as Denise Van Outen, Patsy Palmer, Claire Sweeney and Noni Hazlehurst have made their mark on the leading character and the original lyrics, score and book have been tweaked and augmented. But the core of the piece remains the same and it succeeds or falls entirely on the ability of the sole performer.
Commencing a national tour of Tell Me On A Sunday at the Richmond Theatre tonight was a revival helmed by Paul Foster and starring Jodie Prenger, the winner of Lloyd-Webber’s I’d Do Anything (BBC) which saw her take on the key role of Nancy in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane revival of Oliver! in 2008. Since then Prenger has toured the U.K. in One Man Two Guvnors, Spamalot and Calamity Jane, amongst other theatrical ventures. She is no longer, then, “that girl off the telly”.
Essentially, Tell Me On A Sunday is a song cycle, the only one Lloyd-Webber has written. By extracting material from Phantom Of The Opera and Love Never Dies, one could probably fashion a decent song cycle for the Phantom, but this is the only one expressly written to purpose.
Here, there is an interval, but the entirety of Tell Me On A Sunday occurs before the interval. After interval, there is talk and more music but it is not necessary to stay for that to see Tell Me On A Sunday which runs for just over an hour.
The piece concerns an ex-pat, Emma, living in New York and experiencing the ups and downs of that peculiar set of swings we all clamber on eventually, for better or worse: the love swing. Emma’s journey here starts with her discovery of the infidelity of one lover, her adjustment to single life and then her dating adventures.
Don Black supplies terrific lyrics, words that reflect pain, desolation, humour, anger and fear with crystal clarity. For his part, this being one of his earliest works, Lloyd-Webber’s contribution is endlessly melodic, with a few big stand-out numbers along the way.
Proceedings start with Take That Look Off Your Face, a song that requires a bright, energetic voice with a free, exuberant set of top notes. Other songs are similar in their demands: Let Me Finish, The Last Man In Your Life andDreams Never Run On Time. Yet other songs call for different, more intricate story-telling skills, with versatile softness in delivery, and sound middle and low registers: Capped Teeth And Caesar Salad, Tell Me On A Sunday, I’m Very You, as well as the three versions (If I Lose Him/Younger/Married) of It’s Not The End Of The World.
Prenger has a perfectly good voice, but it is not thrilling. She can hit all of the notes, some admittedly hesitantly, but she does not imbue them with the requisite passion or sense of on-edge attack that makes them invigorating to listen to in live performance. No excitement is generated by the onstage performance.
This is not to say Prenger is dull or bad. She is neither. She is genial, pretty, and affable; she sings from her heart. But, for this piece, that is insufficient.
The band plays excellently under the baton of Peter McCarthy (Musical Supervision is courtesy of Catherine Jayes) and the set from David Woodhead evokes a postcard sense of New York easily enough. There is not much in the way of a footprint left by Paul Foster’s direction; Prenger is stationary for much of the time. It’s not a piece which requires endless fussiness, but a certain level of innovative staging would improve the theatrical experience.
As it stands, it is an inoffensive entertainment, pleasant to watch and hear, but one in which no ground was in danger of being broken.
However, sitting at home and listening to either the Webb or Peters recording would provide a more pleasurable experience, as well as an opportunity to the contribute to the debate about which of those performances was the greater.