Carnaby Street (review). Anne Cox joins the happening people for a nostalgia trip

Carnaby Street. Photo by Robert Workman.
Carnaby Street. Photo by Robert Workman.

I had a culture shock yesterday when I had to explain to a 20-something the significance of Carnaby Street in British (and global) history. He’d never heard of it.

They say that if you remember the “Swinging ‘60s” then you weren’t really there. Well Carl Leighton-Pope was there and it’s his remembrances of the time which he’s used to come up with a juke box musical called Carnaby Street which opened at Milton Keynes Theatre last night.

But the title is a bit of a geographical misnomer. The story concentrates on the Marquee Club, in nearby Wardour Street, which was famous for launching the careers of a multitude of pop stars, rather than being about the hip, groovy, happening guys and chicks who frequented the world’s most famous fashion street.

For a short period of time Carnaby Street was probably the most important real estate in the world. Everyone who was anyone shopped there and all the right people were seen in the clubs and bars in nearby Soho. This was where it was at - if you didn’t come from Liverpool.

The musical tells the shambling story about one Scouser’s attempts to seek fame and fortune in the city where the streets were paved with gold with the music of the time padding out the show to an overlong three hours.

I was a child in the ‘60s but I remember hanging on my cousin’s miniskirt as she sashayed along Carnaby Street with her Sassoon haircut and a Mary Quant miniskirt so short that it was indecent. Two pairs of false eyelashes, lots of black eyeliner, white lips, and her e-type Jag parked around the corner to take us up the King’s Road, Chelsea for more shopping trips.

It was an era when London was the centre of the universe and the energy coming out of those few square miles of the capital was mind-blowing.

The show gives us an inside track to what the music scene was all about but the vibe it tries to create is rather tawdry and depressing.

Here we have a time of sex, drugs, and disappointments instead of conveying the image those of us of a certain age have about the 1960s, that it was all about the fashion and vanity, peace, love, Twiggy, The Shrimp, psychedelic trips and The Beatles singing Love, Love Me Do.

The cast are fine singers, particularly Aimie Atkinson as Penny, Tricia Adele-Turner (Lady Jane) and Mark Pearce as Wild Thing, but they just didn’t do it for me. The girls’ dresses were too long, their hair and make-up more retro 2013 than 1963, the lads, who, at the time, were probably more fashion-conscious than the ladies, just looked dressed from Top Man rather than Lord John.

Perhaps they were conveying the fag end of Carnaby Street. Maybe those more interested in music didn’t really care what they looked like but it just didn’t feel right.

There’s no doubt Leighton-Pope probably has a wealth of stories about the time, as do many other, but Carnaby Street fails to capture the mood of those electric times – until the show closes. The expected encore, with the audience up on their feet and dancing to a string of “impromptu” hits of the ‘60s, finally saw the ensemble come alive. They really looked like they were enjoying themselves for the first time in a very long night.

The story needs editing, tightening up, a complete rethink on the dialogue, and being made more fun but if you want a musical trip down Penny Lane then this slice of nostalgia will keep you entertained.

Carnaby Street runs until Saturday. For tickets and times call 0844 871 7652 or visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

@LBOanne