“Candy floss and caravans, kiss me quick and hold my hand”
I have long harboured a secret desire to go and see Dreamboats and Petticoats: not so much in a ‘I must go and see this rightaway’ kind of sense but more in a ‘I bet that’s actually quite good fun’ way. It is easy to be instantly dismissive of jukebox shows, I have been guilty myself of not seeing any for a long time and of those I have now seen, there’s been a mixed response in the Clowns household: the charm of Buddy done on the fringe won me over but the brash hard sell of Jersey Boys left me cold. Dreamboats… has floating around for a couple of years now, starting in the Savoy and subsequently finding a new home at the Playhouse; a concurrent touring production working its way around the UK too. But the main attraction for going now (alongside tickets falling into my hand) was the West End debut of Des O’Connor, virtually every appearance of whom was welcomed with screams and cheers of delight from the audience – I don’t think I got the memo but I think he may be a National Treasure now.
The show was famously inspired by a series of compilation CD of late 50s and early 60s hits and carries with it a rather lightweight book, centred on a group of teenagers at a youth club in Essex. Geeky Bobby wants to become the new singer of the band but is gazumped by the slick older Norman who also catches the eye of the buxom Sue for whom Bobby holds a candle. On the sidelines, Laura – a talented musician – pines after Bobby unnoticed but a trip to Southend and a song writing competition offer an opportunity to shake things up. It’s all sweet and wholesome with nary a knowing wink or nudge to be found.
And sure enough, I found myself having quite the good time, as I suspected I would all along. The pre-show announcement makes a point of telling us that all the music and vocals are being done live (a dig at certain other West End shows…?) and it shows in the effervescent energy on display, and not just in the ample amounts of choreography. There’s an almost actor-musician feel to proceedings with many a saxophone and guitar being wafted around and the onstage band providing sterling support throughout and the best singing moments come with a couple of finger-clicking acapella numbers which showcase the talent here perfectly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is no biting satire or social commentary piece, Marks and Gran’s writing here is more akin to the Birds of A Feather school rather than The New Statesman, but it still feels appropriate. The gentle humour of the show just washes over you with a warm glow of nostalgia as period details raise a chuckle, familiar gags are aired once again and the introduction of Des O’Connor (scream!) just heightens that light entertainment feel. Indeed there were a ton of Des in-jokes but I have to say they all flew way over my head with a dick-a-dum-dum.
Des O’Connor (scream!) plays the parts of Phil and Older Bobby exactly how he comes across on screen in anything, but it doesn’t really matter in the end does it, because it’s Des O’Connor (scream!). His vocal performance is also exactly how one would imagine it to be, he’s not quite the crooner necessary but again, it doesn’t really matter. The main cast more than make up for him with (checks programme for bio…) former X-Factorer Scott Bruton making an appealingly nerdish Bobby, finding his way through teenage desires; (checks programme again) Dancing on Ice winner Sam Attwater cockily strutting the stage as the overconfident and amusingly plagiaristic Norman and a trio of belting female performers in Charlotte Jeffery’s bookish Laura, Gemma Salter’s strident Donna and Susannah Allman’s sassy Sue. The pace of the show and sheer number of songs shoe-horned into it means that characterisation is necessarily rather light but all five of them manage to convey something of the headiness of youth, the burning desire of teenage libidos and also the sweetness of teenage romance – I actually found the lovely rendition of ‘Let It Be Me’ towards the end to be most touching!
Dreamboats and Petticoats is no world-changing, genre-defying piece of theatre but nor does it pretend to be. With its genuine warmth and bright-eyed enthusiasm and an emphasis on innocent good fun, soundtracked by an incredible raft of hits that just keep coming, it makes for an undemanding but unmistakably enjoyable night at the theatre. Tuck any cynicism away for the evening and pack some throat sweets in case you get carried away with the screaming.