We Marvin Gaye’d and got it on!
Ahhhhhhh Marvin Gaye, the singing sensation who holds a haunting appeal to many, not just because of his soulful classics, of which there are many, but more because of his untimely and tragic death on April Fool’s Day 1984. Hours before his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father in the shared family home they called the ‘Big House’, and what happened there has been shrouded in mystery ever since.
Until now, where many things unfolded on the stage of The Royal in Northampton (things I knew nothing about; cross dressing – Gaye’s Dad, not Gaye – and certain references bordering on incest). If you’re looking for a jolly musical peppered with Marvin Gaye classics, then this isn’t the play for you. But if you want an insight into the real story, or as real as you can get in front of your eyes, this is for you.
We’re all familiar with Gaye’s songs, even if we don’t know they’re his, after all, he helped to shape the sound of Motown in the 1960s with a string of hits, including How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Sexual Healing and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Although ranked as one of the greatest soul singers in the history of popular music, Gaye’s personal life was marred by drug addiction, failed marriages and a tempestuous relationship with his father, and that alongside his huge talent, has kept people interested in him even 30 years after his death.
The cast were pretty amazing (such was their presence, I constantly felt there were many more of them than there actually was). Cast members included Adjoa Andoh from BBC’s Casualty (who expertly played Alberta Gay, Marvin’s Mum) and EastEnders actress Petra Letang (who played Marvin’s sister).The portrayal of his sisters was both heartbreaking and funny, and Leo Wringer who played his Dad Marvin Gay Senior, was so good I couldn’t imagine him out of character. Playing Gaye himself was rising star Nathan Ives-Moiba seen recently in As You Like It at the National Theatre (I don’t want to demean his performance, which was both nuanced and well executed, but there is a scene where his dressing gown keeps flying open and he’s in just his pants, and both my female companions said it was a highlight of the play). Seriously though, he was engaging and very watchable, and he had great energy and rapport with the rest of the cast. Each member of the play brought something unique to the production, so much so, the time flew by to the devastating finale (a bit like watching Titanic, when you know all the way through that the damn ship is gonna sink).
The set was creatively used with a split level bedroom upstairs and the use of lighting – particularly in the scene where Gaye changes from his younger to older self – was superbly effective. The music is directed by Royal & Derngate’s Artistic Director James Dacre and features the Royal & Derngate Community Choir who did a sterling job. It’s easy to forget that these guys are just like us; they’re not professional actors or used to navigating their way around a stage play in front of hundreds of people, and apart from a couple of sideways looks to check what the others were doing, you wouldn’t have known (and I happily clicked my fingers along to some of the more soulful numbers).
Gaye had an extraordinary life; but ultimately it was a family crushed by fame, a searing portrait of the dark side of the American dream (I said may need to pack tissues and I did). By the end of this production, you don’t envy the family anything, and actually, you feel rather glad you don’t have extraordinary vocal talent.
All in all this is a fiercely ambitious project that comes off. Personally I would have liked a few more of Gaye’s hits, but I suspect there maybe copyright issues, and also, I guess this production isn’t really about that. I left the theatre knowing more than when I went in, yet with a whole new set of questions. And to me, that’s a daring production that’s achieved what it set out to do!
Soul is on until Saturday 11 June. Tickets are priced from £10 to £29. To check the performance schedule or to book tickets, call Box Office on 01604 624811 or visit Royal & Derngate. The production is recommended ages 14 and upwards.