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.