Review: I Dreamed A Dream – The Susan Boyle Musical

Posted on 28 March 2012 Written by

It’s not often that you go to see a musical knowing the subject matter but having  no idea what to expect. As with other new musicals based on well-known stories (think Tony! The Blair Musical; Shrek; Matilda The Musical), the question was: how would the production make the story of Susan Boyle’s rise to success interesting, original and entertaining?

With difficulty, is the answer. The challenge, then, was to make the story we all think we know from Facebook, Twitter and the tabloids unpredictable and exciting. Instead, I Dreamed A Dream offers a blow-by-blow account of Boyle’s life from birth to the present day, charting her Blackburn upbringing and relying almost exclusively on material the audience already knows. There are some touching stories of first dates, karaoke contests and personal battles, especially with Boyle’s first (and apparently only) boyfriend John and some early scenes in the Boyle family home where our protagonist first learnt the power of song. Real joy buzzes amongst the retro wallpaper and swinging tunes of the ’60s, bringing the predominantly black-box set alive with James Paterson and Karen Mann’s stunning vocals as Boyle’s parents. Some moments are pleasantly reminiscent of Billy Elliot the Musical. Regrettably, these are fleeting in a musical that manages to transform a truly moving real life story into a sadly uninspiring tale about the difficulties of fame.

If the source material is familiar, there should still be scope for originality in its telling . However, the show is narrated throughout by a fictional Boyle, played by co-writer Elaine C. Smith. Her singing voice is markedly different from Boyle’s childlike melodies, though she does capture Boyle in her speech patterns, whilst hinting at something more. Any role representing a living person on stage is not without its difficulties, but Smith maintains an admirable respect for Boyle throughout, which doesn’t shy away from Boyle’s temper, paranoia and bouts of depression. The script’s jokes and asides to the audience are amusing enough, but direct address soon becomes a rather one-dimensional and claustrophobic way to tell the story.

The ensemble cast do their best with what they’ve got, but some of the short interludes are memorable for all the wrong reasons. One scene, a fusion of rock music and balletic dance to visualise Boyle’s struggle with bullies, loses sight of the sorrowful resonances of a young girl who feels completely alone in the world amongst grungy panto-villain bullies bopping atop industrial-looking crates. Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of original songs in this production. It relies heavily on the music Boyle grew up with, which works early on to set the scene as Boyle wins the Whitburn miners’ club talent competition. However, later renditions of Stuck in the Middle With You as Boyle waits in the BGT queue and Mad World (as fame stifles her) fail to entertain or advance the storytelling effectively.

What could be achieved in a moment, a look or a word is dragged out into endless set pieces. Less would undoubtedly be more here – the script could easily do without the large-scale production and would perhaps work better as a one-woman show. The main problem is that things simply don’t feel like they matter. There is no jeopardy, no conflict; it feels like there is nothing at stake. In short, there is no drama. As Smith highlights in her closing speech, I Dreamed A Dream is Susan Boyle’s story: a story that has a start and a middle, but no end yet. True, perhaps, as Boyle is still entertaining millions worldwide, but on stage this just doesn’t work. An audience needs conclusion, resolution and satisfaction, and there is none to be found.

Thank heavens, then, for Boyle herself. An immediate standing ovation and rapturous applause as soon she appears on stage; she is clearly the most important reason why people are flocking to see this show. Never before has Boyle’s cherubic halo shone brighter or her voice resonated more clearly than in the wake of such bland disappointment.

I Dreamed A Dreamed is at the Newcastle Theatre Royal until Saturday 31 March and then continues its international tour until the end of May, stopping at venues across the UK such as the Liverpool Empire, Bristol Hippodrome, Manchester Palace and Birmingham Hippodrome. For more information and to book tickets, visit the I Dreamed A Dream Official website.

19 Comments For This Post

  1. susanrox Says:

    Good effort for attempting to review it but yours just got DWARFED by the London Times , Telegraph Uk and whatsonstage.

    In the eyes , ears and hearts of many critics and multitudes of Theatre goers whom have been tweeting about it , since MARCH 23 RAVING about it , this show is a HIT!!!

    Dont even think of trying to dissuade anyone from going , because you would be depriving alot of people of alot of JOY including alot of YOUNG PEOPLE whom have ALSO been tweeting their PRAISE about it , having found a new “HERO” in SUBO….

    When more 4 and 5 STAR Reviews come in I will post again to let you know .

  2. CBill Says:

    Every tweet from audience members that I have read (many) and all serious critical reviews are giving the musical from 3 to 5 stars – several 5 stars. What a shame you couldn’t enjoy what is clearly for many a truly magical night.

  3. Laura Turner Says:

    Hi susanrox and CBill,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your comments.

    The musical certainly has received huge amounts of critical and audience commendation, which is truly fabulous. At any show, every audience member may have a very different experience, and whilst this may have been a satisfying night out for many, it sadly wasn’t for me. I hope I drew attention in my review to the fact that this was not a comment about Susan Boyle herself. I cannot agree more that her story is truly inspirational and she has the voice of an angel. The ten minutes during which she sang at the end of the evening will be truly memorable for me.

    My critique of the show was based upon a feeling that it simply didn’t do Boyle’s story justice, which saddened me. There’s so much drama and heart in her life story, but I just didn’t feel this on stage. I have been reading other reviews with interest and it’s always great to hear about the wide variety of opinion on offer. How fantastic that we can all share our individual ideas about a show; thanks for contributing to the debate.


  4. Lauren Twombly Says:

    I imagine it is quite difficult to tell the story of a women still living, as you say. Musical are hard enough. Interesting review. And thanks for the comments, good to see a couple different opinions of the same show.

  5. robert stephenson Says:

    laura. I attended IDAD last weekend and consider it really excellent. Elaine Smith was just perfect as Susan Boyle and the production was particularly good in portraying the teenage years of her life. In this respect, I do not think you were able to understand the nuances. Yea dancing Yea asking – that’s exactly how it was. It’s not your fault, but I think you were reviewing a time you did not truly understand. Believe me, the audience being mostly of a certain age just loved it. Kindest Regards!

  6. Joan Gibson Says:

    Hi Laura!
    Thank you for this perceptive, honest, superbly-written review! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it would be better as a one-woman show.

    I’m copying the review I wrote after seeing the show in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. It seems that you and I are lone voices! PS I am ‘of a certain age’ (61) – so I did understand the ‘nuances’ referred to by Robert in his April 4th post. (Kindest Regards, Robert.)

    I’d love to read more of your reviews, Laura!
    Joan XX

    ‘A ‘sell out’ show – but it didn’t impress me, I’m sad to say.’

    To begin with, I should make it clear that I admire Susan Boyle. I appreciate that she struggled against the odds to achieve her dream, and I am delighted that she has been successful. She has an engaging personality and a wonderful voice, and her success as a recording artiste is well-deserved.

    However, this review is about the show itself – the world premiere of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal.

    I don’t like to be negative, and have thought hard before posting this – especially in the light of all the rave reviews. However, as a musical, I have to admit that I found it disappointing. ‘Low-budget’ and ‘padded-out’ are the adjectives that best describe this show – in my clearly ‘minority’ opinion.

    If you are expecting a musical of similar caliber to Les Miserables, Billy Elliot, Phantom, Jersey Boys, Blood Brothers etc, you will probably be disappointed. The fact that tickets for all of these musicals are very similar in price might lead you to expect that this is a similarly wonderful production. In my opinion, it doesn’t come anywhere close!

    The whole show seemed ‘amateurish’ to me, I’m sad to say. Apart from Elaine C Smith, there are only eleven in the cast – and, in my opinion, none of them stand out as memorable singers, dancers or actors. I thought the script banal, the choreography uninspired, and the acting wooden.

    The set never changes (it’s little more than a bare stage with a backdrop of tv screens) and the songs are all re-workings of hymns or hits made famous by other people. You leave the theatre with ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in your head – but this signature song is from another show!! All a bit of a cheat really, when you think about it – especially considering the price of the tickets!

    All in all, I feel this is a very flimsy attempt at a musical. It has little substance and can surely only appeal to audiences caught up in the national emotional hysteria of Susan Boyle’s story. I honestly expected a better production for the price of my £39-ish ticket!

    To end on a positive note, Elaine C Smith is excellent as Susan, and it was nice to see Susan herself singing two songs at the end of the show.

  7. robert stephenson Says:

    Joan. I respect your views on IDAD but not surprisingly disagree with you profoundly. In fact, I think you have missed the point entirely. Susan is an anti hero, an awkward social misfit. who we love dearly. To represent her in some plush, extravagant Les Mis type production would be to misrepresent her and would be seen as FALSE. To extend my point, I would remind you this is the Happy Valley Male drinking hole and Whitburn Miners Club in the 70′s – not Moulin Rouge. Minimalism was correctly the order of the day. Your gripe over price I fail to understand. Where else could see a good show and a global superstar for all of £39.00 (£15,00) in the GODS – two packets of fags after all! Kindest regards!

  8. Joan Gibson Says:

    Thank you for this swift response, Robert. I respect your views, as you respect mine.

    However, I must point out that I did not ‘miss the point’. If you re-read my review, and the preliminary comments I made in response to Laura’s review, you will realise that I was simply warning potential theatre-goers to consider what is on offer before paying the high prices charged for tickets for this show.

    I never suggested that Susan’s story should have been presented as a full-scale musical along the lines of Les Mis!! Quite the opposite!

    My point was that Susan’s story did not lend itself to a full-scale musical! It had none of the potential of a musical! It would have worked better as a one-woman show!

    I wasn’t ‘griping’ at the cost; I was pointing out that IDAD, as a production, is not up to the standard of West End musicals charging similar prices.

    I stand by my comments re the script, the acting, the songs, the choreography, the dancing, the set and the high prices.

    PS: I would never buy a ticket for a seat in the ‘gods’. I did it once. Never again! I’d rather watch TV!

    Hey, I like this correspondence! I hope that people will respond – even though I’m too old to be accepted as a regular participant!

    Best wishes to all

  9. robert stephenson Says:

    Joan I am most happy to ‘rumble in the tyneside jungle with you’ First your whinge over the price. Remember, Osborne takes 20% and the Theatre renovation takes a cut too. Moreover, I seem to remember paying £70 to see ‘Les Mis’ in similar seats in your beloved West End and I never thought to whine about it.
    Also, you talk about ‘wooden acting’ Has it not occurred to you that the fifth rate comedian/compere in the Happy Valley was meant to be wooden. If he had been other than ‘wooden’ he would not have been performing at the Happy Valley- now would he? Likewise, the singing of ‘Paper Roses’ was meant to be poor. That’s the way families sing. Some good, some indifferent, but mostly bad. Were you not impressed by the ever so gauche telephone conversation between Susan and her first Boyfriend? I thought it was just on the mark. Finally, I don’t want to divide the sisterhood and the kisses, but Laura thought the parents singing ‘stunning’ whilst you thought them poor. Which is it? Make up your minds! No offence but I doubt you’ve ever been near the Happy Valley. I was there last year and believe me as a Scot with middle class pretensions it was not a comfortable experience. Sadly, in some respects I feel you do not know what you are talking about. As always – kindest regards!

  10. bindy Says:

    Robert Stephenson, believe it or not, your browbeating will NOT cause ANYONE to change their mind about the musical, or indeed about any of Susan’s performances on Youtube, where you also attack negative comments ad nausuem. If anything, your incessant jumping to her defense makes it appear that you fear that her talent is insufficient to speak for itself.

  11. robert stephenson Says:

    bindy If I choose to defend Susan then that is my right as a free citizen and I don’t seek or need permission from you to do so. In defending her I try to do so,with some vigour and some humour and although forthright I never use bad language, although I get a lots of this in return, though thankfully not from you. I do not believe I’m bullying Joan and I’m perfectly sure she can defend herself. Indeed, I think like me, she enjoys some verbal combat. Indeed she has said this and asked others to join in. In this respect your views are welcome and you are quite entitled to criticise me. Unlike you ‘free speech’ holds no fears for me. Kindest Regards!

  12. Catherine Says:

    I’m exhausted just reading this.

    I thought it was a fair, balanced review, about a show I’m probably not especially fussed about going to see.

    Not sure what the sisterhood jibe was all about. People are allowed to have different opinions, even if they broadly draw the same conclusions. I’m sure you’ll be able to understand the nuances.

  13. robert stephenson Says:

    Catherine : Well have a cuppa tea, relax and chill out. You have a point.
    You see I was trying to divide and rule. This is a legitimate tactic when being attacked on two flanks at the same time. Keep it in your locker for future use.

  14. Chloe miller Says:


  15. Chloe miller Says:

    rob, why are you talking so much hun. a bit cheeky if you ask me. mr cheeky pants.

  16. robert stephenson Says:

    Chloe! Give me a break’ please! I haven’t spoken for a fortnight on this site.
    You are right, I like to be controversial and mischievous. Frankly, I’m disappointed that Joan and Laura put up such feeble resistance .At the first hint of trouble they seemed to raise the white flag and head for the hills.
    In retrospect. I think I should have been even more severe on their ‘shoddy’ reviews. it’s a great show and most critics love it – even the hitherto ‘sniffy’ London ones. I would love Joan to tell why she went in the first place? I think whatever had happened her ‘poison pen’ was in place anyway and ready to go! Chloe have seen it? If not do go – you won’t be disappointed!

  17. robert stephenson Says:

    Chloe,Joan and especially Laura. Can I ask you to google ‘RTE review of Susan Boyle Musical – I Dreamed a Dream Part2 wmv.It’s on U tube. This is a review by a non Susan Boyle fan. He rates the show 10 out of 10. as do the Dublin audience he talks to after the show. I rest my case!

  18. robert stephenson Says:

    Laura, Just an extract or two from Roisin Ingle’s review of IDAD in todays Irish Times:-

    “The whole show is warm and funny and hugely entertaining”

    “The cast is strong and the production design deceptively simply – a cleverly conceived wall of vintage televisions provides an appropriate backdrop”

    She ends ” Bloody Fantastic”

    Looks like she attended a different show from you and Joan?

  19. Jake Orr Says:

    Comments are now disabled on this review.

    A Younger Theatre is a website for and about young people, we encourage discussion and debate through our writing on theatre and hope to engage other young people by doing so.

    The comments that have since continued on this thread add no further discussion and instead seek to provoke and single out other people commenting. A Younger Theatre does not accept bulling of any kind, and therefore we have taken the measure to close further commenting.

    Jake Orr
    Editor and Founder
    A Younger Theatre

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