First Look: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (Aldwych Theatre, London)

Let me preface this with three important points. Firstly, this write-up is based on last night’s preview performance. While Beautiful has transferred over from Broadway in its relatively finished form, officially it doesn’t open here until 24th February, so may not completely represent its finished form. Secondly, I went into this with high expectations. With frankly amazing reviews in New york and more awards than there are keys on a piano, there’s an expectation for it to repeat that success in the West End. 

Finally, this was my first time seeing a jukebox musical. Having managed to avoid them for a number of years, I finally decided to give in on the strength of the good reviews this has had on the other side of the pond.

Unlike some jukebox musicals, Beautiful isn’t just based around the music of songwriting legend Carole King (played by Katie Brayben), but tells the story of her early years – from the recording of her first song at the age of 16, right through to her landmark concert at Carnegie Hall. (Essentially, if you want to stick it in a category, expect something that’s more Jersey Boys than Mamma Mia!)

Alongside writing partner and husband Gerry Goffin (Alan Morrissey), close friends and fellow writers Cynthia Weil (Lorna Want) and Barry Mann (Ian McIntosh), we learn about King’s rise to success, the birth of her children and her eventual transition from songwriter to singer.

The premise itself is solid. Girl goes to the city to seek a career in music, but all doesn’t go to plan. But whether it’s the curse of the jukebox musical or a poor book, the story felt quite thin – particularly in the first half, which is effectively the same scenario (a song gets written, an act comes on stage to perform it) repeated over and over. And with quite poor exposition to help the audience place each scene at the right point in time – listen out for the less-than-subtle reference to the second child – it feels a bit too much like all Douglas McGrath was bothered about was linking each song together, rather than telling the story.

Only in the second act do we get the kind of dramatic tension needed to stop this being nothing more than a concert show. With far less reliance on the songs and more time spent on the heart of King’s story, it comes into its own. And Brayben gets the time to shine too. In fact, the final 15 minutes were arguably the best of the entire two and half hours, and certainly had far more heart.

Musically, this is obviously strong. Whether or not you go in knowing King’s back catalogue or not, you’ll come out realising just how many great songs came from the collaboration between her and Goffin. The problem I have, though, is that with the exception of the final few moments (‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and ‘A Natural Woman’) few of the songs helped progress the story at all.

In fact, the more it went on, the more I found myself wishing that there were fewer songs and more dialogue. Partly to help make the story more feel more realistic and give more time to King’s struggles, and partly because with each song’s first few notes there was a knowing hubbub in the audience, following by a raft of people singing under their breath.

OK, so that last point may be characteristic of the jukebox musical, but it soon became apparent that a large portion of the audience was there to listen to the music being played live rather than to invest in the story.

I don’t want to comment too much on the individual performances as that would be unfair at this stage – some were inevitably stronger than others but we’re only a week into previews. But I will say that Brayben’s turn as King is one of the strongest I’ve seen in a musical throughout the last year. From the spunky teenager to the ingratiated concert performance at the end, she’s nothing but believable, and without such a strong central performance, I’m not sure the show would have quite the same power.

I have to say one of the things I was most surprised at liking was Derek McLane’s designs, which while relatively simple, helped tell the story. The transitions were dynamic and worked well within the confines of the Aldwych. There have been one too many Broadway transfers in recent years that have been scaled back significantly for the West End, so it’s nice to see something given the full treatment. And having a piano on stage nearly 100% of the time was a nice touch and gave the designs a character in keeping with the show.

Verdict…

This has some truly stunning music, and there’s no denying that. But I wanted and expected more emotion throughout, and I have to blame the book for the lack of it. The performances were all solid, but most of the dialogue and exposition felt too much like it was filler between songs. In an ideal world, I’d have had fewer songs and more about King’s life and work in progress. But based on the audience around me, I’m in a minority.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is currently booking at the Aldwych Theatre until 13th June 2015. Tickets are available from the Aldwych website.

And the seat…

Dress circle, row F, seat 27. This was my first time visiting the Aldwych and I was pleasantly surprised at how nice it was. While I wouldn’t want to be much further back in the circle (there are quite restrictive overhangs from the balconies in here) my seat was almost spot on. For the purists the bottom left corner of the stage was slightly out of view, but by no means an issue for this show. And with plenty of legroom and a decent enough rake it was almost uninterrupted.

Aldwych Theatre, Dress Circle, F27
Aldwych Theatre, Dress Circle, F27

Main photo of Original Broadway Cast by Joan Marcus.

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