If you are a devoted fan of Tina Turner, then this might be the show for you. But before you dive onto the internet to book tickets just a word of warning …. 'Soul Sister' is a show about Tina Turner, and doesn't actually feature the incomparable singer in person. Tina apparently retired in 2009, so that might not come as a shock to some. Disappointed? Well that might be understandable, but the next best thing is on offer in the guise of a highly talented young actress called Emi Wokoma who impersonates Ms Turner in a gloriously energetic performance.
Tina Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939. It was to be another seventeen years before she auditioned for perfectionist musician Ike Turner, inaugurating a musical partnership and personal relationship that has since become the stuff of legend. And not always for the best of reasons. Once married to Ike, Tina quickly learnt that her husband had a violent streak and she often found herself on the receiving end of it.
'Soul Sister' is a jukebox musical in the same vein as 'Jersey Boys', for example. These shows wrestle with a significant problem which centres on getting the balance right between telling a great story to go with the (already) great songs. That requires a lot of fancy footwork, and considerable skill. Like the real-life Ike and Tina Turner story, it is not always a happy marriage, often resulting in the storytelling taking a back seat. The story here is just about enough to meet basic needs, but it still leaves one with significant questions and yearning to know much more. In particular, we really do not get to know what caused Ike to become so abusive towards his wife, or how his childhood and experiences of segregation impacted on his personality and behaviour in adult life.
The directing duo of Peter Brooks and Bob Eaton have devised a show which has a small-scale, intimate feel to it. It starts with Tina giving a solo performance having left Ike and then quickly moves to flashback where we see the young Anna Mae meeting Ike for the first time. Dialogue exchanges between the songs are augmented with video projections of Tina telling parts of her own story, and text snippets flash onto the back wall to cue us in to locational and temporal changes. For this kind of show, the setting is economically sufficient to do the job without dominating the action or songs.
Ostensibly, the show is about both Ike and Tina Turner, and in a sense it is since we see them performing together as well as in more intimate moments off-stage. In their programme notes, the producers remind us that the story of this pair of musical legends is as much a love story as a tragedy. Nonetheless, Ike still comes across as the villain of the peace and his brilliance as a musician does not receive the acknowledgement it deserves.
For some ardent Tina Turner fans, maybe nothing but the original will do and 'Soul Sister' may seem to them like an upstart trying to cash-in on the immense talents of a unique and hugely talented performer. There might be some truth in that point of view. But the show is well-produced, with an excellent cast and an exceptionally fine band, making it a great night out.
'Soul Sister', though, really belongs to Emi Wokoma who has not only mastered Ms Turner's strutting on-stage walk but also managed to capture the essence of her magnetic appeal. With an extraordinarily powerful voice and capacious stage presence, Ms Wokoma handles the well-known musical numbers almost effortlessly, but also provides us with an insight into the raw vulnerability of a woman struggling to cope with her off-stage personal life. A highly impressive and compelling performance.
"The words “a star is born” can be hazardous, but Emi Wokoma, who plays Tina Turner in this “bio-musical”, is blessed with star quality and a voice that’s rawly emotional yet also regal. ."
Henry Hitchens for The Evening Standard
"Is as much a gig as a piece of theatre...It is for an audience that is willing to give, in order to receive, a seriously good time: they will not be disappointed."
Laura Thompson for The Daily Telegraph
"An upscale, highly entertaining tribute show."
Paul Vale for The Stage