Theatre Royal, May 18


Damp dynamite can be slow to ignite, but still goes off with a bang in the end. This show spent most of its time meandering like a riverboat around the twists and turns of Tina Turner’s childhood (with a loveless mother), and her marriage to Ike Turner, punctuated by domestic violence and the occasional hit record. These hits were highpoints (amid relentlessly touring and routine racism), as people realised Tina was a one-off: an incandescent singer who just needed her fuse to be lit by the right songs.

Ruva Ngwenaas at right with The Ikettes. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Eventually she escaped Ike’s tyranny, only to have her career slide into the doldrums of Las Vegas, with no recording contract, let alone hits. Then, in her 40s, she was rediscovered, and became bigger than she ever was with Ike – bigger than any solo female artist had ever been before. She’d spent 15 years into the 1970s being a queen of R&B, but in the 1980s she became a platinum-plated rock star.

Having been told in her autobiography (I, Tina), this extraordinary story was wrangled into a 2018 musical, primarily by Katori Hall. Turner accepted the invitation to have input, and is credited as an executive producer along with her husband Erwin Bach. The originally London production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, is replicated here with a large and energetic local cast. But the best intentions in the world can’t disguise that it’s just a jukebox musical, and so however fabulous some of the songs are, they only obliquely help carry a story and characters that should be so much more robust than the writing-by-numbers that too often defines the dialogue.

Ruva Ngwenaas and Tim Omaji. Photos: Daniel Boud.

The sluggish body of the show still has some fireworks, however, largely thanks to the powerhouse singing of Ruva Ngwenaas as Turner. Ngwena has the furnace factor, without which attempting the role would be farcical. A highlight of the long first act comes when an amusing Phil Spector (John O’Hara), in recording the astounding River Deep Mountain High, dismisses the services of Ike (a convincing Tim Omaji) as being surplus to requirements, and thereby perhaps sows the seed in Turner’s mind that she could make it on her own.

By the second act we’re into the rebirth of her career, and the stronger songs come thicker and faster: Private Dancer (which doesn’t suit Ngwenya’s voice so much), What’s Love Got to Do with It and We Don’t Need Another Hero, among them. Throughout the show the band has been offstage, with just some members of the ensemble miming playing instruments on some songs to rather lame effect.

Ruva Ngwenaas. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Then the dynamite goes off. A set change, a blast of light, and suddenly the band is on stage with Ngwenya, and together they tear apart (Simply) The Best. Hollow and overwrought as the song may be, Turner made it work, and Ngwenya makes damned sure she pulls off the same stunt, her voice rearing up like an inferno, while Stephan Schafer discharges the tenor saxophone solo and Sisa Koroi’s bass drum tries to punch your sternum back towards your spine.

Having hit this level of excitement, they revisit Nutbush City Limits and Proud Mary from the first half, making the previous versions pale into insignificance. Perhaps the whole show should have been done like Chicago, with the band on stage throughout. Certainly, were it all as potent as the last 10 minutes, rather more stars would decorate the top of this review.