Welcome to the 1960s, where girl group The Marionettes are taking to the stage at the height of their fame. But as they come to the end of their final number, one of the girls runs from the stage in tears. And that, we learn from their manager George Ellis, is the end of the Marionettes.
Until now (well – 1984, anyway): 20 years later, the girls are back together for a one-off reunion show that could see their career picking up where they left off. But with so much history to work through – personal and professional – can they put the past behind them and deliver the show their adoring fans have been waiting for?
Writers Peter and Phillip Ley of Tower Theatre Company take us back to the start of the story, introducing us to four giggling schoolgirls who call themselves the Moonbeams, and charting their progress to the top. Along the way, we’re treated to 18 original songs that capture the spirit of the 60s and – like all the best songs from that period – are easy to pick up and totally infectious. (Two days later, I’m still singing the Marionettes’ first big hit, Dynamite.) Polished performances from the cast, along with Ruth Sullivan’s choreography and costumes from Lynda Twidale, mean the musical numbers do a great job of transporting us back in time.
A dual cast of actresses play the Marionettes then and now, which enables the two groups to share the stage, with the older women often observing their younger selves and providing commentary on events as they unfold. Angharad Ormond and Stella Henney earn their place as lead vocalist Cathy with some impressive performances, but both also reveal a touching vulnerability hidden beneath a veneer of false confidence. Meanwhile Fiorella Osborne and Annette Ross show the fiery passion and determination that have always made Mary the true leader of the Marionettes.
What works really well is the way the dynamic of the group picks up where it left off 20 years ago – the professional tension between Mary and Cathy continues, there’s tension of a whole other kind between Mary and George, and the Meltzer sisters (Olivia Barton-Fisher and Jessica O’Toole as the younger, Deborah Ley and Annemarie Fearnley as the older) are enjoying the moment and providing light relief with their banter. The transition is aided by the constant, reassuring presence of Brad Johnson as both the older and younger George, along with Julian Farrance as heartless record boss Allan Tyrell.
Despite a few small stumbles in the spoken scenes, and some sound issues – the live band, led by musical director Colin Guthrie, are fabulous but occasionally drown out the actors – there are a lot of great things about this show, and opening with the break-up of the band creates an enjoyable suspense as we wait to see not only what eventually proved to be the last straw, but whether the women can now overcome their differences. It would have been nice to see more of the simmering romance between Mary and George; considering their feelings for each other are still present and obvious to everyone 20 years later, there are very few references to it in the flashbacks. And while it’s a challenge to recreate the sensation of a huge sell-out gig in an intimate fringe setting, there’s a lovely moment with some crazy fans, which helps demonstrate just how big the group were at the height of their fame.
The Return of the Marionettes is a thoroughly enjoyable take on the familiar ‘rags to riches to ruin to redemption’ story we’ve come to know and love from shows like Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls. With a soundtrack of irresistible songs, some strong vocal performances and a rousing finale, this is a show with great potential, which is pretty much guaranteed to send audiences out with a smile on their face and a skip in their step.
The Return of the Marionettes is at the Bridewell Theatre until 18th June 2016.