As a child of the 1960s, Sunday afternoons were when we watched old Hollywood films on TV, firstly in black and white, and then in colour when my dad rented a colour TV. I loved those films, especially the ones with dancing (and it never seemed odd to me that people might break into a dance in the midst of drama). So I was aware of Rita Hayworth, even though her career was at it's height long before that in the 1940s and 1950s.
When I heard about this musical I did wonder if Rita's story would appeal to today's audiences, would many people know who she was? Having seen the show now, I would say that it doesn't really matter if you know her story or not; as a tale about fame, and the search for love, is timeless. Add in the poignancy of the story being told through the haze of Alzheimer's and this show delivers an emotional roller-coaster.
Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York, into a family of dancers. Her father, Eduardo Cansino Reina, a Spanish émigré, was a dancer as was his father before him. Rita's Irish-American mother, Volga Margaret (Hayworth), who was a dancer in the Ziegfeld follies, met Eduardo in 1916 and they were married the following year. Rita, herself, studied as a dancer in order to follow in her family's footsteps. Called Carmen by her father, and Maggie by her mother, her eventual stage name (decided by the studio) fitted the persona rather than the person.
The show starts with Rita trying to remember who she is, and we are left wondering if this is an self- analysis attempt to dig beyond the Hollywood star persona, or has Alzheimer's already taken a chunk of Rita's identity. Rita is played by Almog Pail, who originally wrote the show as a one-woman piece, and who is now joined by another 4 performers in this show in the round. The full show is co-written with Stephen Garvey.
As we are taken through her past, the young and vulnerable Rita (played fabulously by Imogen Kingsley-Smith) is taken to Mexico by her father to perform with him in order to pay for the family's bills and rent. Her mother warns her to lock her door after the show, as well as study. At first we think that this is against the stage door Johnnies, but later in the musical we see Rita refuse to open the door to her father, as a subtle hint about incest/abuse is made.
After a series of small parts for various studios (of which she says "The plots are different, the parts are the same"), her first big success, The Strawberry Blonde (1941); and her magnificent dancing with Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich (1941) made Rita a star. In this stage musical we see how hard Fred Astaire (played by Joey Simon) made her strive for perfection, and how the mutual respect between them grew. She was reputedly Fred Astaire’s all-time favourite dance partner, ahead of Ginger Rodgers. In the show, Rita says of Fred, "Like all other men he was telling me what to do, but it wasn't to control me".
We see how Orson Welles courted her, and how they fell in love with him being husband number two, and perhaps her one true love. Crowned the “Love Goddess” by her adoring fans, Rita Hayworth thrilled studio executives, performed magic for servicemen (which I didn't know), she generating big box office in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood. Yet Rita struggled to identify with the bombshell image projected of her, marrying and divorcing five different men, including playboy Prince Ali Khan and Orson Welles, in her search for a partner who would love her for who she truly was. In the musical, it is Orson who is the love of her life, with whom she has a child, as she subsequently did with Ali Khan.
Rita, herself, said, "Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me". In person, Rita was shy, quiet and unassuming; only when the cameras rolled did she turn on the explosive sexual charisma that in Gilda (1946) made her a superstar. This is explored through her conversations with a female reporter, who calls her 'shy one' and who shares a Margarita with her (the drink allegedly named after Rita Hayworth). The reporter turns out to be an ally, advising Rita not to speak on the record when it may destroy her career. We rather hoped that Rita really did have a female friend such as this in real life. As Hayworth’s story unfolds, we meet Orson Welles, Fred Astaire, Harry Cohn and other extraordinary figures in her life, all presented through the confusion of her deteriorating memory due to a then unknown cause: Alzheimer’s. Sadly Rita suffered from Alzheimer’s for two decades before eventually being diagnosed at age 62. It makes for a sad story, and one where the recurring theme of 'Who am I?' particularly moving. I felt genuinely moved by the show, which doesn't always happen. The production features five actor-singers led by Almog Pail, portraying over 40 characters. It's impossible to single any of the cast out, as all gave out-standing performances. I had a brief chat with Jane Quinn after the show, who heaped praise on choreographer Jacqui Jameson saying that in 5 weeks she had transformed their performances.
This really took me back to those Sunday afternoons, and I shall watch those old films with new eyes now.
Conceived by Almog Pail
Book by Almog Pail & Stephen Garvey,
Music & Lyrics by Logan Medland
Directed by Steve Nortth
Address: The Cockpit, Gateforth Street, London NW8 8EH Nearest tube: Marylebone
When: 18 November to 23 December 2022
Thursday 24th to Sunday 27th November
Thursday 1st to Sunday 4th December
Thursday 8th to Sunday 11th December
Thursday 15th to Sunday 18th December
Wednesday 21st to Friday 23rd December
Evenings at 7.30pm
Matinees on Sundays at 2:30 pm
Full price: £22.00
(Equity/Spotlight/MU/BECTU Members, Over-60s, Retirees, Persons with Unemployment/Disability Support, Veterans, Students)
(including £1.00 + 3% booking fee)
Carers go free, call the box office to book
Box Office: 020 7258 2925
(10.30am - 6pm, Monday - Friday,
12 noon - 6pm, Saturday)