A snap shot of the 1970s is superbly recreated at Milton Keynes Theatre this week with the production of All the Fun of the Fair which highlights the trials and tribulations of travelling fairground folk.
With a storyline penned by Jon Conway, who himself was born to parents while touring with Billy Smart’s Circus, the show is set in and around a traditional East London funfair and features the songs of the show’s star, David Essex.
But rather than just trawling through a back catalogue of David’s self-penned hits stretching back to the early 1970s – although they play a big part in the show – he has written all the music and lyrics to a number of other catchy numbers which cement the whole production, inspired by his earlier album, All the Fun of the Fair.
The show opens with fortune teller Rosa (Louise English) singing on of David’s most popular songs, ‘Winter’s Tale’, before the curtain rises on a brightly lit, sparkling fairground backdrop where showman Levi Lee (David) and the whole cast set the scene with the the rousing ‘All the Fun of the Fair’.
With Levi’s rebellious dodgem operating son Jack (Rob Compton) having an eye for the ladies, he makes a play for flirty teenage blonde Alice (Tanya Robb) whose father Harvey (David Burrows) comes looking for her to take her back home.
With three dodgem cars circulating on stage and the whole cast jumping in and out of them during a great dance routine, Harvey is furious when he spots the two ‘lovers’ together.
He throws a string of insults and threats at the lad – the politically contentious ‘pikey’ and ‘didecoys’ among them after his loved-up daughter had sung ‘He Noticed Me’ – Levi comes to Jack’s defence.
But with Alice due to celebrate her 18th birthday the next day, she persuades her father to let her spend it with her friends back at the funfair. And with £100 ‘cash’ changing hands (after a bit of haggling), Harvey warns her to stay well away from Jack the lad – and order which she is clearly going to ignore.
With roundabout horses, candy floss and all the things you associate with old fashioned fairgrounds, Levi’s funfair is in financial trouble while we also learn that he was recently widowed.
His wife had been killed while riding the Wall of Death just hours after finding out that her husband had been having an affair with Irish mystic Rosa.
And with Levi having taken the decision that the motorbikes would never be used again, Jack argues that the ‘Wall’ was the only real attraction at the fair and that without those thrills, the fairground will never be popular or profitable again.
After Harvey and his hardman minder Druid (Barry Bloxham) comes looking for Alice (who has left the fair with Jack to go to a nightclub), her Cockney father brings a gang of his East End cronies to smash up Levi’s funfair.
The fairground folk rally round to clear up the mess while Levi sings ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’ while the first act ends with a rousing version of ‘Gonna Make You a Star’ ... that’s after Levi relents and says the Wall of Death will be reintroduced.
Levis also declares that Jonny (Tom Newman), who adores Jack but is a simpleton orphan whom Levi has looked after since he was a toddler, will be allowed to ride one of the motorbikes.
The second act opens with Jack and his dad sharing the poignant ‘Father and Son’ and although Jack keeps coming back to his first love – Rosa’s daughter Mary (Susan Hallam-Wright) – he decides to run away and elope with Alice. But on Doncaster railway station they have a change of heart and return to the fairground.
With Jonny beaten up and having his face cut by Druid’s flick-knife after he refuses to divulge where Alice has gone (Druid secretly has life-long a crush on her), the tale works itself round to the memorable Wall of Death sequence.
However that is preceded by a big fight while Jonny (who runs the fair’s shooting gallery) fires a saw-off shotgun to try and end the trouble. Unfortunately in doing so he accidently shoots Jack dead.
But ‘the show must go on’ and when Levi and Jonny apprear in their leathers on opposite sides of the stage on their motorbikes with headlight blazing, suddenly the ghost of Jack appears high above the audience (it’s almost 3D-like) on his bike, the trio sing an upbeat version of ‘Silver Dream Machine’.
There was a rousing opening night curtain call after the final ‘Here We Are All Together’ with the David taking enormous credit for what is a very personal two hour 15 minute show.
All the Fun of the Fair finally made its debut on a nationwide tour back in September 2008 although its premiere was delayed for many months after David was tempted away to play a lead (George) in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s revived Aspect of Love.
The show finally opened to rave review in Bromley in 2008 and after a countrywide tour, it enjoyed a successful West End run at the Garrick Theatre where it was nominated as Best New West End Musical in 2010 by What’s On Stage.
A legendary singer, actor, composer and lyricist in his own right, David Essex’s fan base has grown over the years from his early hits like ‘Hold Me Close’ and ‘Rock On’ to his theatre work which started in the early 1970s when he was chosen to playJesus in Godspell.
His other musical show credits include playing the revolutionary Che Guvara in Evita and Fletcher Christian in Mutiny, the musical version of Mutiny of the Bounty.
Awarded an OBE by the Queen for services to the musical theatre and his charity work, David is also a patron of the Gypsy Council of Great Britain.
More recently his appearance on television as Eddie Moon in EastEnders came to an end when All The Fun of the Fair went back on the road with a 25 theatre tour last September. It is due to appear next week in Darlington, then Coventry before closing in mid-April in Wolverhampton.
It’s a real roller-coaster of a show and apart from the excellent performance of David Essex – even through his voice has never been a particular favourite of mine, but it’s certainly unique– Tom Newman’s reprise of his West End performance as Jonny was a show stopper (he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor in a Musical in 2010) as was David Burrows’ ‘Mr Nasty’ role of Harvey, the protective father.
With several members of the original West End cast having returned for the current tour, Louise English (Me and My Girl), Tanya Robb (Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You) and Susan Hallam Wright (42nd Street and Anything Goes) all have excellent voices.
The show runs until this Saturday (February 11) so you can get your money ready to see the main attraction by calling the Milton Keynes Theatre Box Office on 0844 8717652 or visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes