Son of a Preacher Man

The Alhambra

WHEN your heart is broken, there's only one guy who can fix it. That would be the Preacher Man, whose Soho club was the place to hang out in the Swinging Sixties.

Fast forward half a century, and three lonely souls are searching for answers to complicated love lives. Paul has never got over the love of his life from his lost 60s youth; recently widowed Alison finds herself on the brink of an inappropriate romance; and feisty young Kat is caught in the minefield of online dating. Each of them has a link to the Preacher Man club - Alison's mother and Kat's gran were regulars there back in the day, and it was where Paul fell in love as a young man.

The club is now a trendy coffee shop and, with the Preacher Man long gone, it's left to his seemingly hapless son (see what they did there?) to help the three strangers restore the look of love.

In Son of a Preacher Man, a bittersweet but ultimately uplifting show, their stories are told through the songs of Dusty Springfield. With a thin plot and clunky dialogue, it was those soulful songs, made famous by one of the best female singers who ever lived, which kept the audience enthralled, and a multi-talented cast of actors, singers and instrumentalists did them proud.

The musical rests on a nostalgic tone - each character yearning for what the club offered back in the Sixties - yet, apart from a lively record shop flashback scene, most of the action is set in the present. We never really get to know Alison's mum or Kat's gran, or why the club meant so much to them.

I felt I didn't get to know the three main characters much, either. I liked Alison, a mild-mannered teacher coping with the sudden loss of her husband, but she wasn't given much chance to develop. Kat is stroppy and unlikeable, and it takes an unlikely revelation to bring her to her senses, and Paul is endearing, and perhaps the most credible character, but there were missing chapters of his life that I'd like to have known more about.

Overall though, it's an entertaining show with strong performances from Michael Howe as Paul - his guitar-strumming delivery of Spooky was pure class - Michelle Gayle as Alison and Alice Barlow as Kat. All three had fabulous voices that purred through the Dusty classics, including I Only Want To Be With You, The Look of Love, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me and, naturally, Son of a Preacher Man.

Great performances too from Nigel Richards as amiable Simon and Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty and Cassiopeia Berkley-Agyepong as the scene-stealing Cappuccino Sisters.

Director Craig Revel Horwood's imaginative staging saw his trademark use of actor-musicians on stage; a nice touch showcasing the remarkable talent of this cast of performers. The action raced along, with lively choreography and some poignant moments breathing new life into Paul Herbert's impressive re-workings of familiar hits. Alice Barlow was particularly slick in high-tempo song-and-dance numbers, although I could have done without the 'girl power' moment following Anyone Who Had A Heart when assertiveness turned to violence; cartoon-like but gratuitous nonetheless.

A highlight for me was the moving simplicity of the empty chairs scene, with members of a bereavement group, together but each very much alone, singing I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself.

The overall story left me cold, but it's an entertaining show, thanks largely to the songs and vocal performances.

To be honest, I'd have preferred a musical about Dusty Springfield.

Runs until Saturday.