THE life of Dusty Springfield, hailed as Britain’s greatest female pop singer, was ripe for transformation into a stage show, and now Jonathan Harvey and Maria Friedman have done it, sensationally.
Opening at Bath Theatre Royal until 7th July before a brief UK tour, it should be headed straight for a West End theatre and a long run.
Dusty takes its audience on an all-singing all-dancing all-emotional intensity trip through the life of Mary O’Brien. Based on the authorised biography, it encapsulates the excitement and ambition of a perfectionist singer in the golden days of pop music. Dusty went head to head with the Beatles, was a television regular and every new record was eagerly awaited by her huge fan base.
As the story begins, Dusty has quit the folk trio she formed with brother Tom and embarked on a solo career, fighting the Fab Four and other Merseybeat stars for the top billing. Her agent Vic Billings, suspecting her sexuality, wanted her to marry, but Dusty always went her own way, fighting her dominatingly critical mother and choosing (and hiding) her own partners.
Dusty’s lesbianism was the worst kept secret in British pop, but she could never come to terms with it, and finally fled the UK for what she hoped would be a successful career in America, where her star plummeted through cheap comedy shows to alcoholism and self harm.
Her star was on the ascendant again when Billings linked her with long-time fans The Pet Shop Boys, with whom she recorded electropop hits. Then came the diagnosis of the cancer that took her just before her 60th birthday, with loyal friends Pat and Ruby by her side.
Tom Pye has taken every opportunity to design costumes and sets that bring those days back to colourful and energetic life on stage, from Ready Steady Go to What Have I Done To Deserve This?
The show pivots on a terrific performance by Katherine Kingsley, a graduate of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School who has made a name as a singer and actress since leaving Bristol in 2005. Dusty is so much more than a biographic tribute show, and Katherine brings passion, subtlety, self-hatred, wicked humour and desperation to this complex woman. If you listen to her early-rehearsal YouTube clip, and then the finished article on stage, you can hear the remarkable work she has done on the voice. Her finale song is literally a show-stopper, with the packed audience clamouring for more.
With Rufus Hound as Billings (and a ghastly pre-Trump show host), Joanna Francis as Lois (a sort of amalgam of Dusty’s lovers), Esther Coles as Pat and Ella Kenion as Ruby, and a terrific ensemble, this is a show for all lovers of pop, and Dusty fans old and new.
It is as brilliantly acted as it is sung, showing the vulnerable and driven Dusty Springfield behind the panda eyes and exaggerated gestures.
Technically it hits all the top notes too – the opening op-art black and white light sequence for Ready Steady Go is as amazing as the later breathtaking visuals for the Pet Shop Boys triumph.
Dusty richly deserves huge success.