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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Savoy


  Emi Wokoma and Chris Tummings/ Ph: Marilyn Kingwill

Romps through back catalogues that call themselves a musical usually draw their score from rock and pop hits. They are the love child – some might say bastard – of two kinds of show: musical and tribute. The first of these is an ever-shifting, constantly renewing art form of infinite possibility. The second is a creative cul-de-sac whose promise to its audience is a show that contains absolutely no originality whatsoever. In fact, to deviate by even a semitone from the music the audience has heard countless times would result in demands en mass for a refund.

It's a promise that Soul Sister – this by-the-numbers biography of Tina Turner – studiously keeps, unless you count the sketchy script that half-heartedly attempts to document Turner's relationship with Ike – the man who discovered, made, married and beat her.

Yet no amount of derision for a particular kind of show – you can call it snobbery if you want – can resist good music when played well. Soul Sister performs Turner's back catalogue very well indeed. And although in the role of the spiky-haired, big-bottomed soul diva Emi Wokoma displays only a fraction of the original's charisma, backed by a punchy onstage band and backing group she has a sonic boom of a voice that demands recognition and not a little awe. 

The song list spans an era that began when Tina's name was Anna. It is Anna, the shy daughter of a Tennessee preacher, who turns up to an East St Louis club and auditions for Ike, played by a charismatic Chris Tummings. We learn that Tina's tiny skirts, and the shimmering stage moves of the 1980s, came after she found Buddhism and the courage to find a way out of her abusive marriage.

But there is a problem that all back-catalogue shows face. How do you use a score that was never written for the story being acted out on stage?

Co-directors Pete Brooks and Bob Eaton solve it the Jersey Boys way. Which is to say that nearly every one of Turner's 25 or so hits seen here – from the anthemic "River Deep, Mountain High" to the infectious "Shake Your Tail Feather" – is performed as either a re-creation of a concert or a studio recording.

As for Turner's story – which is slickly reflected onstage in the form of a projected cartoon strip – the narrative serves mainly to mark time between the numbers. That said, the dialogue is not at all bad, and in the scenes where Tummings' self-absorbed, coke-sniffing Ike is confronted by his serial betrayals – both physical and sexual – the script actually generates a fair amount of drama, all of which elevates Soul Sister to a comparatively superior kind of tribute back-catalogue show.


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