Like many others in my particular age bracket (a 22 year-old graduate), I’m probably most familiar with legendary crooner David Essex from watching copious amounts of EastEnders (shameful, I know), in which he plays shady-antiques-dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold Eddie Moon. So I was intrigued when I learnt that he was to play the lead role of fairground owner Levi in a specially-written musical about an old-fashioned funfair run by travellers. As Essex has close links to the traveller community (his mother was an Irish traveller herself), I came to the conclusion, before stepping into the theatre, that this would be a relatively easy role for him to fill. Alas, I thought wrong.
There is no denying that the stage design was inviting; gloriously colourful life-sized carousel horses, real working dodgems and full-size fairground stalls. They all aided in the creation of the atmosphere of those fairs you used to visit as a child, when you would be tugging on your parents’ arms for a go on the Hook-a-Duck with serious intent on winning yourself that not-at-all inconvenient 4-foot stuffed panda.
Unfortunately, that was where all that was truly great about this show ended. Now, due to the fact that I and my companion were probably the youngest in the audience by a good thirty years or so, we weren’t as familiar with Essex’s musical career and discography; the most famous hits of which had been incorporated into the storyline of the show. As a result, I may have had a slightly different viewpoint to all the other Essex-loving attenders dancing in the aisles around me. In all honesty (sorry, David) the songs were naff. For starters, whenever I hear any lyrics which describe rain as “the sky began to cry”, I switch off. The rest of the music was along the same lines; packed full of over-done, over-used lyrics, including a supposedly sentimental song about ‘Father and Son’ working on motorbike repairs together after a big fight which had led the son, Jack (played by newcomer Rob Compton), to run away from home. I can’t say I blame him; if there ever was a time for someone to run away from the circus instead of joining one – this would be it.
The storyline was tired and as packed full of clichés as a particularly poor ‘Final Thought’ from Jerry Springer. Some parts were so abominably cringe-worthy that it became the sole reason the show was funny at all. Case in point being the grand finale, in which Levi’s son Jack returns from the dead (or perhaps it was symbolic and he was simply ‘there in spirit’ – which would be even worse), swaying meaningfully in full leathers on a glitteringly restored motorbike to a ‘rousing’ reprise of a song entitled ‘Here We are all Together’. Pardon me, but bleurgh.
Essex’s portrayal of Levi was brooding and mysterious. So brooding and mysterious it actually became quite boring after a while. His singing, while being characteristically gruff and quite lovely in some parts, was a bit too hit and miss for my liking and made me feel a tad uneasy after I heard one too many off-key notes. The rest of the cast were relatively strong support for Essex, however, I was a little unimpressed by them. Instead of blending together as one stream of sound during group numbers – I could easily pick out individual voices, as if they had bet their first month’s salary in a ‘who can sing the loudest?’ competition.
Overall it seemed like the whole show couldn’t get its story straight. At first it seemed to be a tale of Jack’s discontent with his father Levi’s unwillingness to modernise the fairground and pull in punters, then it turned into a Romeo and Juliet-esque pastiche of lovers belonging to warring families ending, somewhat inevitably, in death and, ultimately, acceptance. Essentially, it meant that I spent the entire performance looking like someone was trying to teach me the principles of quantum mechanics.
Some shows you watch knowing you’re witnessing something special, that it will be running for years to come and is praised by all. But sadly, despite its big dreams and good intentions, I have a grave feeling that the fate of ‘All the Fun of the Fair’ is a long way off such glory. Sure, hardcore David Essex fans will love it – but the show simply does not have the gravitas that will pull in the wider audiences. Sorry David, I’ll just see you next week on EastEnders.