This is an old review. For our 2016 review, click HERE.
There are a number of tried and tested formula nowadays for the jukebox musical, from bland tribute shows (Let It Be, Thriller Live) and pop biography (Jersey Boys) to folding an existing pop catalogue into a brand-new story (Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You) and spinning a narrative out of an existing pop album (American Idiot).
Mapping an existing pop repertoire from a single source to an already well-known title, The Bodyguard ventures along another route to recall Desperately Seeking Susan, the fast West End flop that in 2007 re-set the plot of that Madonna film hit around a wall-to-wall hit parade of Debbie Harry's songs. But The Bodyguard earns its place in a crowded West End marketplace thanks to the sheer brio and confidence of Thea Sharrock's propulsive staging, an involving book and the irresistible hook of those amazing Whitney Houston songs.
Unlike Dirty Dancing, which feebly mimicked the film it was based on to provide a bad carbon copy of it, the trick here is that The Bodyguard is made into a genuinely live experience whose constantly inventive production provides its gripping narrative with proper theatrical momentum.
The story of its fictional pop star being pursued by a dangerous stalker has the high stakes of a thriller, and Sharrock and her book writer Alexander Dinelaris give it the weight required. But because of its lead character's career, we also have a real reason for all the presentational pop numbers, too, so they feel organic to the story, not merely imposed on them.
And as now rendered by Beverley Knight, the blazing self-styled Queen of British soul, the songs are terrific, but so, more surprisingly, is her tender, vulnerable acting performance. She is ideally partnered by Tristan Gemmill, best known for his TV's Casualty, who played her bodyguard with controlled conviction. There's also superb support from Debbie Kurup (who remains from the original cast) as the pop star's sister, and Michael Rouse as the stalker (who somewhat gratuitously reveals that he sports a six-pack!)
The show also has a knock-out design by Tim Hatley, strong pop-based choreography by Arthur Pita, and fantastic music quality (thanks to the musical supervision and vocal arrangements of Mike Dixon, the musical direction of Richard Beadle, the orchestrations of Chris Egan and Richard Brooke's sound design).
When a highly successful film morphs into a stage version, you can bet your life that feelings and opinions will run high about the result. I doubt that the opinions will be any less extreme here with this new musical version of the 1992 film which starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. The film was a substantial box-office hit, though the critics apparently gave it rather mixed reviews at the time of its release.
If you don't already know, the story revolves around a superstar, Rachel Marron (played here by Heather Headley), who is being stalked by a rather sinister man. Her life potentially in danger, her manager hires a bodyguard called Frank Farmer (played by Lloyd Owen). At first Rachel is antagonistic towards her new employee as she is not aware of the danger she is in. Inevitably perhaps, Rachel and her bodyguard end up in bed together, though their romance is short-lived.
The story seems rather ordinary these days, and there are few surprises, even if the show starts off with one. A large streak of sentimentality punctuates the entire concept and it is all rather gloomily sad with few moments of humour to release tension. The audience seemed rather muted throughout the performance – apart from those in front of me fiddling with their phones and munching on confectionary. But there was an almost instant standing ovation at the end which rather surprised me.
So, how do you go about changing a highly successful film into a stage musical? Director Thea Sharrock seems to have opted for a kind of half-way house between a film and a play, and the essence of her approach is to be found in the set and staging. First, there are sliding screens which focus on different parts of the action and move us between scenes. The timing of the scene changes (presumably all computer-controlled) is absolutely perfect. At the same time, Ms Sharrock employs a considerable quantity of video which is splashed over the scenery. There are some nice touches of detail in Tim Hatley's precise and functional design. In the background of Rachel Marron's home we see trees waving naturally in the breeze. And, on the larger scale, there is a huge log cabin which trundles on to the stage in the second half, lending a festive season kind of feel to the proceedings.
Though the production values are exceptionally high, some of the dialogue scenes are less satisfying. Some seemed artificial and contrived with several characters lined-up in semi-circles as though standing at microphones in a radio play. My main gripe about the story is that we don't really get an insight into just why Frank and Rachel suddenly find themselves in bed together. Maybe the idea is that they are both loners in a way, and are simply finding some kind of comfort, but it is not very clearly described. Some of the musical numbers are presented more like cabaret rather than a stage musical, and I wondered if this was because some of the well-known songs simply don't conveniently fit the story.
In Lloyd Owen's excellent Frank Farmer, we find a rather solitary man, who appears to have a past which he would rather forget. Formerly a Secret Service agent he is dependable, cautious and quietly confident. Lloyd Owen sensibly handles the American accent by keeping it light, so it never irritates or fades. Heather Headley has a wonderful singing voice, but she is also a very capable actress and I never found her lacking in authenticity or believability.
I have come to loathe curtain calls at the end of most West End shows – musicals in particular. This is because the music usually encourages the audience to clap in time to it, so that it is impossible to give the actors their dues in an acceptable manner. Here, though, Thea Sharrock organises things much better. We don't have the stomping music accompanying the bows and we thus have the chance to avoid the irritating mechanical clapping. But afterwards, we do get a final number to fire us up and send us humming on our way. Good value though that might be for some, it does rather turn the show back into something more like cabaret and relegates the story to a back seat.
A friend who loves the film saw this stage version a day or two ago and was very disappointed. I suspect devotees of the film will have extreme views about this musical. I do not know the film so well, so I think I can be a little more objective. I found Thea Sharrock's production incredibly slick in terms of the design and functionality, and the singing and songs are great. But overall, I felt a little disappointed with the lack of character and story detail.
"It is performed...with such an infectious zest and wholehearted commitment that the evening is tremendously enjoyable."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Although the show is staged with enormous technical efficiency, it is one more example of the necrophiliac musical morbidly attracted to a cinematic corpse.."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Spectacularly and ingeniously designed by Tim Hatley, is far more enjoyable than the movie. And there is a thrilling star performance from the Trinidad-born, American-based singer and actress Heather Headley...But that is largely where the good news ends. Though Alexander Dinelaris has tweaked Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, the show remains trite and sentimental."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Corny but entertaining."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"It’s spectacular, stylish and delivered with panache."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times