Theatre review: I Dreamed a Dream, Newcastle Theatre Royal

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WHEN I left the theatre, the last notes of Susan Boyle’s big anthem, Who I Was Born To Be, were still echoing from the walls of the big, glowing auditorium of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.

And the lady herself, in sparkling red, was reaching out to welcome the rest of the cast back on stage for a final bow, after an evening that first tells the story of her golden voice, and then – in an undeniably powerful moment of theatre – offers us the chance to experience it for herself, in two brief numbers that form the finale of the show.

All across Britain’s big theatres, in this century, the stages are full of shows that celebrate and pay tribute to the music that increasingly shapes everyday lives, telling the stories of the people who created it, tapping into the huge reservoir of feeling it inspires; at their worst, they’re called “jukebox musicals”, opportunistic efforts to sell a loosely-linked evening of familiar tunes to fans who offer easy pickings to the masters of niche marketing.

At their best, though – well, like any form of theatre, they’re capable of surprising the audience, moving them in disturbing and unexpected ways, inspiring fine writing and powerful musical performances. And although the new Susan Boyle musical I Dreamed a Dream is not the greatest musical I’ve ever seen, it certainly has a rare intensity, and terrific theatrical energy.

Co-written by Scottish panto genius Alan McHugh and Elaine C Smith, who also stars as SuBo – and schedule to tour on to Aberdeen next month, and to Glasgow and Edinburgh in the autumn – it’s set by designer Morgan Large on a dark stage backed by a wall of television and computer screens, some old-fashioned, some state-of-the-art; it’s a powerful image of a life shaped by the telly, from Boyle’s birth in West Lothian in 1961, to the iconic moment when her first appearance on Britain’s Got Talent went viral on internet screens, flashing around the globe in less than six minutes.

There is a kind of paradox at the heart of this version of Susan Boyle’s story, in that it comes in the form of a first-person narrative, and therefore gives a powerful, articulate speaking voice to a woman famously able to express herself best through the songs she sings; the Susan conjured up for us by Elaine C Smith, in a tremendously effective and moving star performance, almost inevitably has a confidence and presence, when not singing, that Boyle famously lacked.

If we can look beyond that slight hitch in the show’s relationship with reality though, what we see is a clever, honest and highly theatrical script, which never tries to evade the darker aspects of Boyle’s experience, from the bullying at school, to the brutalising by the tabloids that followed her success.

The show features a fine supporting cast of 11 actors, a seven-piece band, and a brilliantly-chosen playlist of popular standards, from Daydream Believer and Mad World to Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. And in the end it emerges as a vigorous, thoughtful and inspiring tribute to the life so far of a woman who was brutally dismissed as brain-damaged at birth, but who clung to the powerful love of the family who raised her, to the knowledge of her own talent, and to her dream of a life as a singer, until – in a moment of pure theatrical magic – that dream began to come true.

Rating: ****