Tuesday 18 April 2023

The Bodyguard

 Curve, Leicester

17th April, 2023

Because I've got you to protect me, right?

Rachel Marron asks her bodyguard this question as she looks into his eyes, seeking reassurance that she’ll be safe at the Academy Awards ceremony. By this point in the show, a stalker has broken into her house, had the opportunity to kidnap her son, and murdered her sister all under his watch. The fact she still trusts her bodyguard says something of her love for him. The 1992 movie The Bodyguard was Whitney Houston’s acting debut and, despite its poor critical reception, one of the highest-grossing movies of its time. Its single ‘I Will Always Love You’ created one of the most iconic pop power ballads of the 90s and ever since. The 2012 Olivier-nominated musical adaptation, now touring the UK, hasn’t solved the flimsiness of the story but does deliver a dose of nostalgia and ensures that Whitney Houston’s artistry and songs are the enduring stars of the show.

Rachel Marron, an Oscar-nominated actress and singing superstar, has a face and voice everyone recognises. At the peril of a crazed stalker, her management hires a new bodyguard Frank Farmer (Ayden Callaghan) to protect her at home and work, day and night much to the dismay of her publicist. He has a say on all aspects of her life from limiting which venues she plays to where she can have brunch. Rachel’s freedom is fairly restricted, unlike the comparative invisibility of her sister Nicki, also a singer-songwriter. This is until Frank takes Rachel to a Karaoke bar filled with fans badly singing her songs (are they bating the audience?!). By the end of the first act, the stalker is closer to Rachel than he’s ever been and both sisters are in love with Frank.

It strikes me that Marron is a challenging role to play. It requires diva star quality, the ability to pull off dance numbers and big songs, as well the need to elicit empathy. At this performance, Marron was played by Samantha Mbolekwa who does a fine job. Although she may not yet have the experience of other actresses in the role, she exudes confidence in the concert numbers and highlights the character’s vulnerability and desire to occasionally blend into the background. Emily-Mae as Nicki delivers a stand-out performance. She has a confident grasp on the songs’ vocal demands whilst imbuing them with a sense of character.

As expected with Thea Sharrock’s staging, the production gives the audience what they want. Usually with jukebox musicals, the songs are reworked to find an inner meaning which can help to advance song or story. Whilst this is true of some of the songs, many are simply performed as concert numbers. Whilst these louder numbers involving scissor lifts and flames may provide a rush of excitement, the more effective moments are where Sharrock allows the music and the voices to take centre stage. The duet ‘Run to You’ between Rachel and Nicki where they both realise their feelings for Frank is a particular highlight.

Tim Hatley’s design works well to create multiple spaces. Brickwork prosceniums evoke large performance spaces, on top of which more detailed places are layered: from the white drapes of Rachel’s mansion to the lakeside lodges of Frank’s so-called safehouse. What the show lacks overall is a sense of specificity which makes it feel a bit hollow. Back stories, if there at all, often come too late in the second act. But it’s the iconic moments from the movie and numbers like 'I Will Always Love You' that I imagine audiences want to hear and they won’t be disappointed.

The Bodyguard plays at Curve, Leicester until 22nd April as part of a UK tour until 30th December. For further information, please visit https://www.thebodyguardmusical.com/#tour-dates

Ayden Callaghan and Samantha Mbolekwa in The Bodyguard. Credit: Paul Coltas

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