JOHN PAUL GEORGE RINGO... & BERT
(Theatre - London: 1974/1975)
Punch - August 28, 1974
The real Beatles story is a Grand Guignol affair and the glimpses we have of it in 'John, Paul, George, Ringo... And Bert' are spine-chilling enough. Nothing notable is left out, although it seems to me that a few wives are dropped en route and the boys' disastrous film career is only hinted at, but as Vic Oliver used to say - "What was left was very good..."
The production is clearly influenced by Joan Littlewood - which is not a bad thing, and although the play is no 'Oh! What A Lovely War', it's good to see that perhaps Liverpool has something to learn from London after all.
The surprise of the evening is Barbara Dickson who plays the piano and sings, which is like saying that Gary Player is a golfer and that Germany have a football team. Miss Dickson sings in a voice of slate and marble, brass and fire.
It's the voice of the Liverpool Kop, it's a voice in love with what it sings, a voice made for singing.
We see little enough of her during the evening as she sits on stage, but not in the action, belting out the appropriate Lennon/McCartney songs to mark the developing action. It's only during the curtain calls that the audience gets a good look at this large, gawky girl wearing gold-framed spectacles, but when they do they show their appreciation in a way reminiscent of a Liverpool football crowd when Kevin Keegan scores the winning goal.
The author, Willy Russell, is the latest in the line of good English provincial dramatists who write the commonplaces of everyday living into universal themes, and he does it well, with humour and some skill. The Beatles were always there to be written about and while they existed they were written about - constantly. Willy Russell's achievement is to put them in context, to see them as a part of other people's lives and to make dramatic sense of their odd rise to fame...
The four young actors who impersonate the Beatles do it with some skill. Of course, make-up helps, but the attack and insight is to be admired, especially from Bernard Hill who plays John Lennon, and Anthony Sher who plays Ringo and cleverly suggests the growing sophistication and deadpan humour of the most down-to-earth member of the troupe.
In the Joan Littlewood manner there are many amusing cameo performances, notably from Linda Beckett as a Liverpool kid, Nick Stringer as Klein and Robin Hooper, who has the tricky role of the Virgin Epstein and all but brings it off. Ah me, it makes you feel quite old watching all these young 'uns acting their heads off - but the odd thing is I want to go and see "John, Paul, George, Ringo... And Bert" again. I wonder why?... Perhaps it was just because I enjoyed it.
(Theatre - Liverpool: 1983)
Daily Express - 13 January, 1983
The girl from 'John Paul George Ringo...& Bert' took another rocket-burst musical into orbit with this dazzling Saturday night launch.
Nine years ago Barbara Dickson achieved instant stardom as the songstress-narrator in Willy Russell's hit version of the Beatles story.
It is a slice of pure theatre magic that these two shining talents are together again for the singing star's acting debut in a tale of murder, madness and wild Scouse humour. For both, it is a triumph.
Barbara is a slumland Mother Courage, pressured into giving away one of her newborn twins to her middle class employer. It is an astonishing performance, alternately sad, wry, waspish - and always hauntingly sung.
Willy Russell has fashioned a musical as sharply professional as 'West Side Story', and a good deal wittier and grittier... a simplistic class war tale saved from banality by a liberating humour and a musical score of folk song plaintiveness and operatic intensity.
'John Paul George Ringo...& Bert' won two West End awards as the best musical of 1974; 'Blood Brothers' is my odds-on favourite for parallel honours in 1983.
(Theatre - London: 1983)
Daily Express - 17 April, 1983
This morning the pages of musical history are going to have to be rewritten to include the names of Barbara Dickson and Willy Russell.
That will probably mean erasing some that have been at the top for quite some time.
...Unlikely though it may seem for a show that has a downbeat opening, middle and end, Blood Brothers is not just another Liverpool hard luck story. Blood Brothers is a rags-to-riches story that makes a haunting musical tragedy of our times, bursting with the talent of George Costigan as Mickey and Andrew Schofield as the many faces of the demonic narrator.
But more than anything the memory swells with the sound of Miss Dickson's tragedy-filled voice begging the world to "Tell Me It's Not True" and watching helplessly as life tears everything away from her.
BAND OF GOLD
(TV - 1995/1996)
The Sun - March, 1996
The shock hit of last year is back. The girls are off the game and running their bright new cleaning company Scrubbers, whoops, I mean Scrub It.
It's quite a challenge. Even Cathy Tyson stuggles to look good with her hand down a lavatory as writer Kay Mellor, as usual, leaves nothing to the imagination. There's still plenty of sex and drugs as Samantha Morton and new girl Lena Headey plough on, turning more tricks than Paul Daniels, while high on curious chemicals.
As Geraldine James's character Rose puts it : "I suppose you and Madam Leather Knickers have been busy shoving things up your noses".
But Barbara Dickson steals the honours as earthy Anita. She almost falls for evil George Ferguson's smooth talk to let him into the business but realises in time he's still crooked. Unfortunately for Anita, he is so upset he knocks her flying with his Jag.
It's hardly the show to watch with your maiden aunt but it's a gritty drama packed high with street cred. And if you don't mind the fact that all the men are prats, perverts or pimps then even we humble males can enjoy it.
THE 7 AGES OF WOMAN
(Theatre - Tour: 1997/1998)
Liverpool Echo - October, 1997
In the hands of a lesser talent, The 7 Ages of Woman could be a disaster and an embarrassing one at that. But with Barbara Dickson it has a star who turns it into a triumph with a peformance that sizzles with passion and verve.
The show chronicles a woman's journey from the cradle to the grave with the music from favourites such as Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman and Willy Russell. In terms of structure, that is as complex as it gets because this is a performance rather than a plot-based musical. And what a stunning performance it is.
Dickson's voice is phenomenal. Tracey Chapman's Behind The Wall is filled with emotion and the celebration of Carole King's Natural Woman gives a rousing finale to the first half.
The variety of the songs on offer, however, mean that some are stronger than others. Few could better Dickson when it comes to singing Easy Terms from Blood Brothers.
... The impressive set provides mood and atmosphere enhanced by images projected on screens above the cast.
Backed by musicians who are not afraid to perform, Dickson appears to relish her time on stage. As does guitarist Andrew Schofield who comes to the fore in some of the show's best moments, such as the poignant Tom Waits' song Picking Up After You. And he even had Dickson laughing during an hilarious performance of When I'm 64.
But the night belonged to Dickson and she left the stage to a standing ovation.
SPEND SPEND SPEND
(Theatre: London 1999/2000)
Financial Times - 13 October, 1999
Spend Spend Spend is a musical, and it is the most glorious new musical I can ever recall seeing. It does not trivialise or exploit Nicholson's story for its own ends; even as the physical abuse by her father and two of her five husbands are turned into song, the sympathy and heart which pervade the evening are undeniable. The "yes, I've been through all this and I'm still here" defiance it projects is not a theatrical concoction, but the blunt Yorkshire directness of Nicholson's own character...
Barbara Dickson is magnificent as "Viv now", constantly on stage and commenting upon the fortunes and events experienced by Rachel Leskovac's chirpy, chippy Young Viv; as the eight score-draws on the pools coupon are musically counted out, Dickson's Viv clearly does not know whether to laugh with joy or cry with bitter hindsight.
Sams' direction, as so often, strikes a wonderful balance between the emotional core of the show and an exuberant presentation. Spend Spend Spend fully deserves to join Blood Brothers as a working-class "up yours" fixture among West End musicals, both for its innate qualities and because of its too-long-denied attitude to Nicholson: simply, it pays her respect.
(Theatre: Tour 2004)
Liverpool Echo - October, 2004
Mention "Fame" and a show full of energy, enthusiastic cast members and skilful dance routines comes to mind. The musical version of the film/TV show, premiered in the West End eight years ago, opened at the Liverpool Empire last night and obviously the cast could dance. But there was nothing particularly outstanding in the show -- except, of course, of Barbara Dickson.
In the main role of Tyrone Jackson was Craig Stein, a hit with many of last night's audience with squeals and cheers from the teenagers...
The real star was Barbara Dickson, who never disappoints. In the role of teacher Miss Sherman, her outstanding voice and fault-free performance put some of the other actors and actresses in the shadows.