Life On Carnaby Street

Encore Theatre Productions     Forest Arts Centre, New Milton Philip & Julie McStraw  22 June  2023

Southbourne based theatre group Encore! Theatre Productions bring the swinging Sixties to New Milton’s Forest Arts Centre with their own ‘juke box’ musical Life on Carnaby Street.  Set to a backdrop of the iconic Carnaby Street with era defining popular songs, replete with brilliant dance routines, Life on Carnaby Street carries a strong story line which deals with some of the social issues of that time, which still have resonance today.

The narrative follows the life of sixteen-year-old Doreen, aka ‘Dolly’, Sullivan, the daughter of uptight and stressed-out Bank Manager Ted and his easy-going wife Jeanie, who are molded by the social norms of the period. Starting a new job in a Carnaby Street fashion boutique, Dolly instantly becomes friends with the manager, Shane, and his group of friends at the Riviera Coffee House. Shane and his boyfriend, Charlie, are living their lives in the face of daily discrimination, even possible criminal prosecution, because of their homosexuality. Shane is viciously attacked in the street one evening and is saved from an even more severe beating by a ‘Alfie’, who is a busker.  Dolly and Alfie immediately fall for each other, though he leaves her to take up a once in a lifetime opportunity to join a band from Liverpool.

As to be expected, this is a story about fun, excitement, and exhilarating love in the swinging Sixties. But it’s also a drama of substance dealing with everyday drudgery and a darker side to Britain of that time, with a potent message about the damage that can be caused by intolerance and prejudice.

The functional and versatile stage is set in 1960’s styling – replete with lots of Union Jack motifs and vibrant colours. On one side of the stage is a kitchen and on the other side the fashion boutique, both of which are quickly converted to the coffee shop when required. Centre stage is a dance space with a large screen at the rear onto which period London Street scenes, newsreel reports and psychedelic graphics are projected. The superb accompanying sound system is sychronised with the action and images.

The Ensemble cast open the action by bursting onto the stage with an electrifying dance routine set to the classic recording of ‘Salsa Bosa Nova’ by Quincey Jones. Their costumes and hair styles are spot on. Plenty of ‘snap, crackle and pop’ and the audience immediately know they are in for a good time tonight. From there on the majority of songs are sung live and the renditions of some of the solo songs, ‘Shout’ (originally by Lulu) and ‘Downtown’ (originally by Petula Clark), in particular were truly great. The singing is of a very high standard throughout. So too is the choreography and dynamic dance routines, which weave seamlessly through the action scenes as the drama is played out. Simply great performances from the entire cast, which brought spontaneous applause, and singing along to the songs, time and again from the appreciative audience.

The lead Actors were all totally believable in their roles, so much so it would be churlish to single out any one of them for particular praise. They were all very good – its’s as simple as that!  But that commendation also applies to the Ensemble cast, who danced, sang and acted their hearts out.  Was it faultless? Well, no, there were a couple of first night teething issues, but nothing to detract from the overall performance.

Script writer and Director Martin Mansfield, who also played the part of Shane with verve and empathy, has done a first-rate job here. Indeed, the Production Team and support staff have done an excellent job as well!

Life on Carnaby Street runs until 24 June at Forest Arts Centre. Do go and see it if you can. You won’t be disappointed!