“Anna Mae Bullock, you’re too loud. You’re always too loud.” That’s how the little girl who will grow up to be Tina Turner gets scolded by her mother in an early scene from this new bio-musical. As rock ’n roll history relates, of course, hers was a voice that couldn’t be silenced. Not by an unhappy upbringing, by a violent, exploitative marriage, by racism, or by bigotry and short-sightedness in the music industry. The show is essentially classic jukebox fare – the rags-to-riches story of a music legend, wrapped around a selection of her hits. But with a book originally conceived by Dutch actors Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins and written by the playwright Katori Hall (acclaimed for her Martin Luther King drama The Mountaintop), it’s a popular hit with real strength and substance.
Not that Hall deviates much from the genre’s tried-and-tested formula, or from well-documented accounts of Tina’s struggles. The trajectory here is very similar to that of What’s Love Got to Do with It, the 1993 film starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, which was based on Turner’s 1986 autobiography "I, Tina." But Hall does bring real heft and bite to her portrayal of the experiences and social context that shaped Turner’s experiences.
Phyllida Lloyd’s production is slick and pacy, lubricated by elegant revolving sets by Mark Thompson, galvanising choreography by Anthony Van Laast, and skilful use of lush lighting by Bruno Poet and video by Jeff Sugg that give the whole of a sheen of class. Above all, there’s Adrienne Warren, inhabiting the title role with extraordinary authenticity. What she presents is so much more than a well-observed impersonation or a tribute act. It’s a real, artistic interpretation of an extraordinary life and the woman who continues to live it. Body and soul, Warren inhabits Tina, her voice an instrument of incredible power, pain, sensuality and sweetness. What’s more, she somehow manages to make it all look effortless. From our very first glimpse of her, Warren captivates – and that’s before she’s even turns to face the audience. She stands, unmistakable with those strong legs, spike heels, that mane of hair, at the bottom of a flight of stairs to an arena stage. Just two steps, and we recognise that trademark Turner strut.
But this is our destination, not the beginning – so we’re whirled back through time to Nutbush, Tennessee, where little Anna Mae sings (too loudly) in the church choir, while daddy is the preacher. Home life is grim. Her parents are locked in a cycle of mutual violent abuse, and their two daughters’ loyalties are horribly torn. So Ann Mae leaves to live with her grandmother (Lorna Gayle), who instructs her in the traditions of her Cherokee ancestry, before moving to St. Louis to join her mother Zelma (Madeline Appiah) and sister. It’s here, at a juke joint, that she meets Ike (known locally, Zelma ominously points out, as Pistol Whippin’ Ike). The inevitable follows: the onstage fame and offstage misery; the chart-toppers, the frenzied schedules; the sex, drugs and violence; divorce; the tacky Vegas shows and financial instability; and finally, the 80s reinvention and a cavalcade of power-pop smashes.
The show doesn’t really pause for breath long enough to consider any of this in great depth, but Hall does hint at a wider perspective. It’s clear that Tina’s unhappy childhood nudges her towards an unhealthy normalising of domestic abuse, and that her mother’s instruction to keep quiet about her school education lest she be thought “uppity” diminishes her sense of self-worth. Zelda herself, meanwhile, is desperate for “a job for coloured folk that ain’t picking cotton.” And Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s gravel-voiced, magnetic, Mississippi-born Ike is damaged by his own traumatic past of familial tragedy and racism-fuelled injustice.
It’s a great virtue of the piece that the familiar numbers are integrated with such deftness. "Nutbush City Limits" naturally crops up early on, and "Fool in Love," "Proud Mary" and "River Deep, Mountain High" occur naturally in recording studios or stage performances (and raise the roof). But it takes considerably more delicacy to insert some of Tina’s later, bombastic successes, and for the most part it’s well done. "Better Be Good to Me" is Tina’s divided response to Ike’s unexpected marriage proposal. She sings "I Can’t Stand the Rain" against a stormy London skyline, and "Private Dancer" among rows of impervious record-label suits in swivel chairs, all of them unwilling to take a chance on a middle-aged black woman, despite her stunning ability and stellar achievements. The Mad Max theme "We Don’t Need Another Hero," following Zelda’s death, is one of the more forced moments, and in fact the second act in general lacks the texture and conviction of the first. With the arrival of Australian music impresario Roger Davies (Ryan O’Donnell) and the band Heaven 17, key figures in Tina’s post-Ike renaissance, the action moves perilously close to parody, and the energy almost fizzles out. In the end, though, there’s no real danger of that with Warren on stage. She’s a phenomenal talent, and this is a full-throttle, guts-and-glory performance. Fans will love the show. But there surely can’t be anyone who could watch Warren in action and not be blown away.