Soul Sister (Savoy Theatre, London)                                    

Rating: 3 Star Rating

Tina Turner tribute show Soul Sister is both made and saved by Emi Wokoma’s sensational impersonation of the glamorous diva. With her electrified lion’s-mane hairdo, skirt hem around her  navel and thighs of teak, she is unforgettable.

The voice is spot-on, although the face looks nothing like the same. But this is a performance infused with Ms Wokoma’s own powerful, raw, gap-toothed personality, and that makes all the difference.

Tina Turner was a teenage gospel singer, real name Anna Mae Bullock, with Baptist roots in  Nutbush, Tennessee.

The mane attraction: Emi Wokoma as Tina Turner in Soul Sister The mane attraction: Emi Wokoma as Tina Turner in Soul Sister

The mane attraction: Emi Wokoma as Tina Turner in Soul Sister

She was discovered, groomed and promoted by her mentor Ike Turner, who married her and thought he owned her.

This show tells how she eventually got out of the abusive marriage and crawled her way back up the bill from total career collapse to solo superstardom.

The problem is never the songs – they are great. It’s the script. Even by the decidedly unShakespearean standards of the compilation show genre, the dialogue here is lifeless, and Peter Brooks and Bob Eaton’s storytelling clunks like a wooden leg.

A lot of the domestic marital stuff is dragged out at length.  Ike is mean, chippy, short-fused and a terrible cocaine addict. Every time he snorts more of the devil’s dandruff you know he is going to thump her.

Never mind, by the Seventies feminism is in the air and battered Tina is chanting Buddhist mantras in a dressing gown in their Los Angeles mansion while Ike prowls around angrily. When at last Tina smacks him one in the mouth, how we all cheer!

Ike is very well played by Chris Tummings – a fine guitarist to boot – with a huge shiny lacquer wig which turns into an afro as the production progresses. Weirdly, however, the show doesn’t feature Tina’s last hit with him, Nutbush City Limits.

The cartoon-style design projections are classy and panels slide sleekly about the stage. But we also get the usual lazily chosen footage of Martin Luther King, Nixon, Moon landings etc to represent the social revolution of  the Sixties.

The early songs are terrific,  if less well known, Tina and  the Ikettes shimmying about in  joyous union. The onstage band really gets cooking in the second half and the big hits – What’s Love Got To Do With It and Simply The Best – are belters.

It’s Tina we want and Tina we get, thanks to Emi Wokoma, who, in a series of costume changes, gives us a sparkling, big-lunged brand of glitz and high-octane raunchiness. She’s simply the best even if the show isn’t.

In Dickens’ Women a short, round actress walks on stage and recites from one of the maestro’s novels. Then she announces: ‘That was Sarah Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, and I am Miriam Margolyes from Clapham. I have had a passion for Dickens all my life.’

What follows showcases two dozen or so women from Dickens’s work and Margolyes’s extraordinary gifts as a comic actress.

She has been touring this show for more than 20 years and she’s still on the road. Her twinkling personality perfectly dovetails with Dickens’s vivid creations.

She might be in thrall to the great man’s genius, but she’s certainly not blind to his faults. His poor wife Catherine, who bore him ten children, is a pitiful figure. As for the insipid young heroines in many of the novels, Margolyes is surely not alone in saying: ‘I find them rather icky.’

She reminds us of the childhood job Dickens endured in the blacking factory while his father was incarcerated in prison for debt – a shame that he never got over. But then, as Margolyes points out, ‘he never got over anything’. She also fills in some of the less familiar biography so Dickens doesn’t come over as too much of the jolly paterfamilias he’s been painted as.

We meet Dickens’s only lesbian character, Miss Wade from Little Dorrit; there is an icy encounter between Miss Havisham and Pip from Great Expectations; and Margolyes brilliantly recreates the bit from Oliver Twist in which Mr Bumble flirts with Mrs Corney by the fire: ‘Sexual greed to economic greed in one scene!’

This show, co-written with its director Sonia Fraser and accompanied by pianist Benjamin Lee, has come into its own in Dickens’s 200th anniversary year.

Margolyes is totally  in command of her material and this loving, literary tribute sparkles and never plods.

Georgina Brown is away.

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