With a long and successful recording career behind him, David Essex has considerable deposits in his musical bank account. And that's exactly what he's drawn on to put together a new show which also has the same title as one of his early albums – first aired in 1972. And Essex is no stranger to West End shows having played Jesus in the original production of Godspell, and Che in the original version of Evita.
Though Jon Conway's book tries to draw on some modern themes – for example, divorce, how to cope with offspring who are struggling to find their own way in life, and the plight of travellers and so forth – the script is really rather tame and the jokes are contrived and mostly fall flat. I knew we were in the realms of near-desperation, when one of the principals lost his trousers – always a bad sign.
However, fans won't be disappointed by the musical numbers on offer. All Essex's famous hits – as far as I can tell – are incorporated in the show. 'Winter's Tale', 'Hold Me Close' and 'Silver Dream Machine' to name just a few. David Essex's voice still sounds pretty good and the unique quality it embodies is still strongly in evidence. But the accompanying music sounded recorded to me – and since there wasn't a musician in sight I have to assume it was indeed recorded. That's a pity because the show lacks the vibrancy and electricity which a live band or orchestra brings to a musical. Furthermore, the numbers all seem to have the same kind of tempo, so we don't get very much in the way of effective differentiation between scenes and the whole thing has a removed, almost bland kind of pace which leaves one feeling it needs a massive injection of raw energy. And that's also the heart of the problem in terms of the direction – it lacks real vitality. David Essex spends most of the time standing in more or less the same posture, arms hanging at his sides. Perhaps the idea was to contrast Essex's staid Levi with his more ebullient son, Jack (played by Michael Pickering), but it didn't work for me.
'All The Fun of The Fair' is by no means an overly extravagant production. It's a pity that we never see the wall of death which causes so much angst for Essex's Levi, and so much friction between him and his son. The production really lacks that kind of sparkle and specialness which we've come to expect in West End shows. That said, there's a neat trick with a motorcycle come the finale, though it's hardly a substitute for a demonstration of the real 'wall of death'. However, that might be asking too much of any production!
Nostalgia certainly draws in the crowds, so there will no doubt be considerable numbers of Essex fans ready to shell-out to recall their youth by visiting the show. And David Essex's songs are worth another airing. However, the musical numbers are let down by the lack of energy and a rather limp script which culminates only in anti-climax.
"Enjoyably scrappy, over-earnest but likeable new musical."
Mark Shenton for The Stage
"It’s always cheering to see a lovable, daft musical in the West End and this compilation offering based around the greatest hits of Seventies pop star David Essex certainly fits the bill."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"You often feel like humming harmlessly along."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"Enjoyable production...This is a long way from being a great musical but with its mixture of seedy charm and sudden moments of menace and emotional pain, All the Fun of the Fair is well worth a spin."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph