Lenny Beige: Once In A Lifetime - A Tribute To Anthony Newley

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s difficult to pinpoint just what audience this tribute to a genuine showbusiness icon is aimed at. Die-hard fans of Anthony Newley will surely be deterred by the wall of ironic kitschness Lenny Beige brings to any performance, while those with little interest in the multi-talented Sixties singer, songwriter and actor – and that has to include pretty much everyone under the age of 45 – are likely to be frustrated by the meticulous biographical details, and sometimes too-deferential tone towards Newley, which restricts the pace and the flamboyance of the cabaret.

The homage is clearly affectionate, too affectionate, in fact for Steve Furst’s alter-ego caricature to really shine. He hails Newly as ‘the greatest entertainer this country has ever seen’ and makes no apologies for the fact his genre was middle-of-the-road. After all, as he points out, it means you can hear the words.

His superlative claim has some merit, for in his day, Newly was a phenomenal success. From East End poverty, this Londoner landed the role of Artful Dodger in David Lean's 1948 version of Oliver Twist, became the toast of the West End, Broadway and Vegas, appeared in films such as Doctor Dolittle and wrote such classic songs as What Kind of Fool Am I, the Nina Simone hit Feeling Good, and the James Bond theme Goldfinger.

No wonder he’s considered worthy of a tribute show in the swanky supper-club surrounds of Piccadilly’s Pigalle Club. But with Beige at the helm – a pantomiming mix of orange skin, gaffer-tape eyebrows, terrible wig and comedy high-kicks – there’s an inherently mocking tone that doesn’t sit will with the hero-worship.

On his own terms, Furst’s creation, ‘king of the one-liners, veteran of the cruise liners’ is the same guilty pleasure he always is. Here he fills out his own back story of a poor Hackney Jewish boy – original surname Beigeowitz – which offers plenty of scope for witty old-school one-liners that start ‘we were so poor that…’ or ‘I was so unloved that…’ And Furst has a brilliantly evocative way with words, creating metaphors that sparkle, images that endure and crafted gags guaranteed to raise a laugh.

He gets us going with a big production number version of the nursery rhyme Pop Goes The Weasel, playing right to his strengths, before setting up the premise that Newley was his boyhood mentor, sending him regular despatches from the showbiz front.

He thus tells the biographical rise and fall of his hero – reduced in later life to playing the back room of a pub, just a decade after headlining Caesar’s Palce – interspersed with those bogus letters and the songs that Newley, the second Mr Joan Collins, made famous. Furst/Beige belts them all out with verve and good intention, rather than any great vocal skill, but backed by a talented band.

But there’s something missing – and it’s not just the audience on this sparsely attended, and consequently unatmospheric first night of his second West End run. But the deference to Newley, treating him as if he was a distant historical figure rather than a crowd-pleasing entertainer, means a genuine sense of fun never kicks in. The pizzazz seems faked, and the number of slower ballads and occasionally maudlin tone, slows things down.

The best tribute to Newley would not be this factual story of his life, but to revive the sophisticated, decadent but fun Rat-Pack atmosphere in which he worked – even if it is with a 21st Century tongue-in-cheek slant. Beige would be the perfect man for the job, clearly valuing the enduring quality of classic songs over the ‘three-minute knee-trembler in a pissy alley’ of a rock and roll song. But this show is too firmly stuck to a dry, biographical format to achieve that.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
October, 2007

Review date: 1 Oct 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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