Review: Son of a Preacher Man @ Palace Theatre, Manchester

Most of us know Son of a Preacher Man as the swinging 60s classic from legendary artist Dusty Springfield.

But anyone praying that the jukebox musical will live up to its name is in for a sad case of the blues.

The production – now playing at the Palace Theatre in Manchester – focuses on a bar popular in 1960s London.

The Preacher Man, as it’s called, was Soho’s hottest music joint, where kids danced the night away to the latest crazes and dared to dream of love.

The joint’s legendary owner was famous, not only for his vinyl records but also for curing lonely hearts with his coveted words of wisdom and advice on love.

Fast forward 50 years and three lovelorn strangers meet on a quest to find ‘the Preacher Man’.

LIMITING AND FARCICAL: The script really holds back this production

The characters consist of Paul (Michael Howe), a former member of the 60s in-crowd still yearning for a man he met there many moons ago; Alison (Debra Stephenson), a recently widowed teacher with a disturbing crush on her teenage student; and Kat (Diana Vickers), a bereaved millennial heartbroken over a man she’s been rejected by on a dating website but never actually met.

Unlucky for them (and the audience as well) all that remains of the Preacher Man are memories.

The group arrives simultaneously in the capital to discover the bar has been converted into a coffee shop by the Preacher Man’s son.

There they are greeted by the Cappuccino Girls – a waitressing trio who are presumably intended to pay homage to the sixties but in fact are closer to resembling residents from the Hunger Games Capitol.

It is this unusual mismatch of genres in the script and stage design that let Son of a Preacher Man down.

60s music is met with pantomime acting and High School Musical-style dancing, whilst the costume design borrows arbitrarily from all eras.

One character looks and sounds like Nancy from Oliver Twist, another like Effie Trinket from District 12.

The play is actually set in the present day, but you wouldn’t always guess it from the out of touch plot.

A one-liner early on in the show lures you into a false sense of security that you’re in for a musical comedy about dating in the modern age.

“Love is an easy thing to lose,” says Paul. “If you ever find it in the first place,” quips Kat self-deprecatingly.

Sadly, this is quite literally a one-liner and most of the laughs that follow come for all the wrong reasons.

What follows is the Preacher Man’s son, Simon, setting out to channel the spirit of his father, helping the lovesick strangers find ‘the look of love’. 

COSTUMES: The design borrows arbitrarily from all eras

This is a big task for a two-hour production, meaning none of the main characters get the chance to fully develop.

Both Alison and Kat are driven to find the Preacher Man by grief and loneliness, and yet their back stories are given so little stage time that they feel cliché and trite.

We learn about the death of their loved ones in a bizarre, Pitch Perfect-style grief-off that’s more likely to make you vomit than laugh or cry – though which one it was going for remains unclear.

This is a shame because both actresses give strong performances and don’t really get the chance to truly shine because of the limiting, somewhat farcical script.

The show does pick up in the final half but it’s hard to tell if that’s because it gets better or because the end’s in sight.  

To be fair, the final sequence is a lively showcase of musical talent and it must be said that the singing is consistently strong throughout, especially from former X Factor semi-finalist Diana Vickers.

The on-stage musicians also shine through but not enough to disguise the fact that Son of a Preacher Man is an altogether lazy, corny attempt to shoehorn a story onto a Dusty Springfield soundtrack.

At the climax of the play, one character professes ‘clichés are the best when it comes to telling the truth’.

Sadly, the show itself begs to differ.

*Son of a Preacher Man is showing at Palace Theatre, Manchester until Saturday, September 30. You can buy tickets HERE. 

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