I was really excited to see this show because Etta James is one of my all-time favourite female vocalists, and this is the closest I was ever going to get to seeing her live.
The Town Hall in Birmingham is a great venue, with a clear view from every seat. The backing band (The Essential RnB Band) came on in silence before introducing Vika Bull as Etta. The set was simple, almost as if this was a concert rather than a theatrical performance, but with the addition of a projector showing still black and white images from Etta’s home state of California, USA. This was a good thing because it allowed us to focus on the music rather than being distracted by extravagant sets, light shows and dancing. Vika was dressed in a fitted polka dot dress with capped sleeves and a flower in her hair, before changing during the interval to a sophisticated black vest and trousers with a black and gold fringed jacket.
At Last: The Etta James story recounts the life and sound of one of the most influential and interesting singers of the twentieth century. The story starts in Los Angeles, California where Etta was born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938, and takes you on a journey of love, drug and alcohol addiction, pain and success through to 2012 when Etta James sadly passed away. You’ll learn about Etta’s foster home upbringing, who she rubbed noses with throughout her music career, and her feud with BeyoncÃ© around President Barrack Obama’s inauguration. The story I’ll leave there because well…spoilers!
I’d seen a lot of stellar reviews about Vika’s voice so I was keen to hear it for myself. I have to say I wasn’t sure during the opening couple of numbers, including ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’, but something clicked after that (so much so that I feel quite bad even mentioning how I felt at the beginning), and Vika became something else with the first shivers sent up my spine during the acapella introduction to ‘Something’s Got a Hold on Me’. Other spine tingling moments included ‘All I can Do is Cry’ where I literally felt as though I was watching the man I love walk down the aisle with someone else, and her rendition of James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’.
In terms of storytelling the narration was done very well with the right ratio of speaking to singing. If I was being picky it would have been nice to have the narration done in an American accent as this is the story of a young African-American finding her place in the world. But, others might say the diversity in accent provided a clear distinction between when Vika was speaking about Etta and when she became her. The delivery of the songs was believable and I felt the whole range of emotions with the cast.
Etta James’ songs span a range of genres including RnB, blues, soul, rock n roll and funk so there’s something for everyone and she certainly led a full life. If you’re interested in music this is an essential education and a real ‘must-see’.
The Etta James story is written by John Livings, directed by Simon Myers and produced by Simon Myers and Moira Bennett. It is presented by the MJR Group and Theatre Shows International in association with Neil O’Brien Entertainment.
Reviewer: Chrissie Duxson