Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ The question reverberates through this biographical musical.
Just 16 when she meets songwriter Ike, the powerfully-voiced Anne is soon christened Tina Turner, and though she’s entranced by this smooth talker with a musical gift to match her own, it’s the first gesture of ownership in a tragically imbalanced relationship.
Emi Wokoma is mesmerising in the central role, able to emulate the raw fire of Turner’s vocals, uncannily mimic her movements and fully command the stage, while Chris Tummings does well with the difficult part of Ike, unforgivable yet remaining human. The costumes dazzle, the backing band impresses and no Tina devotee will feel short-changed by the numbers, from a soulful cover of The Beatles’ Help to the showstopping River Deep, Mountain High. But with all the baggage we bring to Tina and Ike’s story, Soul Sister faces inevitable difficulties.
The programme speaks of an Ike Turner ruined from the start by the prejudicial times in which he grew up, but aside from a mention of the murder of Ike’s father, which he witnessed as a child, this thread is unexplored in the show. Historical context of Tina and Ike’s rise to fame is projected in curious comic-strip bubbles behind the action, a technique aiming for depth but managing to distract (are we watching a scene of marital discord or reading about JFK?) and feels superficially shoehorned, rather than complementing the story.
Instead of convincing that Ike and Tina’s is a tale illuminated by civil rights struggles, these flashes of 60s strife and 70s feminism convey how claustrophobically sealed-off the couple seem. Tina speaks of having few friends, and this loneliness gives occasional glimpses of her need for the abusive Ike.
Soul Sister suffers from a central ambivalence. On the one hand, Tina Turner is beloved by millions of fans the world over, so her rise to fame should be triumphant, which is what the muscular songs – unforgettably delivered by Wokoma – project. Conversely, domestic violence has been at the heart of Turner’s professional partnership, marriage and life. Can the two be reconciled for a carefree night at the theatre? Minutes after Ike hits Tina full in the face in a hotel room, he’s out delivering a one-liner, leaving the audience unsure how to react. Torn between being bravely true to Tina’s story, and letting fans sing along to the songs they adore, the musical has something of a split personality.
Nowhere is this better expressed than in the final half hour. After Ike’s paranoia and cocaine habit lead Tina to attempt suicide before finally leaving him, the show runs dry of tabloid juice and sees nowhere to go but the stage. Lights glare as we’re transported to a celebratory concert crowned by Addicted to Love and The Best. And that’s the end.
While the party atmosphere will delight Turner fans, the narrative simply peters out. You’d be forgiven for feeling that the preceding pain and sadness fails to mesh with the powerhouse ending, and Soul Sister’s unbalanced result reminds us that real lives won’t always fit jukebox musicals’ comforting conventions.