The Ike and Tina Turner story comes to Belfast, replete with hilarious wigs and a crowd-pleasing set of classic songs
As threadbare plots go, Soul Sister isn't so much tattered and torn as entirely transparent. It charts Ike and Tina Turner's rise to stardom, their eventual breakup, and Tina's resurgence as a pop diva par excellence, and you could write everything that happens in between on the back of a beer mat – of which there are many left propping up empty glasses in the Grand Opera House bar at curtain-up.
But then this type of musical theatre is all about the music – the 'theatre' part is secondary. In that sense, Soul Sister has more in common with Spamalot than Miss Saigon. Once you realise that you're unlikely to learn anything new about Ike and Tina's extraordinary life stories, then everything becomes more bearable. Even the incessant whooping and hollering that emanates from almost every aisle throughout. (Yes, it will become more bearable. Soon it will be bearable. Soon...)
The musical performance of the band and the singers is tip top, with Emi Wokoma almost note perfect as the towering chanteuse (but for a rendition of 'You Know I Love You' which is, cringingly, one octave out). The hits are there. The costumes are perfectly period, and the wigs are downright hilarious. But what sets Soul Sister apart from other revival shows are the visuals. Rather inexplicably, Soul Sister presents Tina Turner as the heroine of a strange graphic novel.
Captions, images and videos are incorporated into a Marvel Comic-style background projection that runs throughout the production. It takes us from Nutbush – where Anna Mae Bullock was born and brought up in the gospel tradition – to sunny LA, where the Turner's finally settled down to domestic Hell during the cocaine-riddled 1970s.
Along the way there are photographs of JFK's inauguration in Washington, singles ascending the Hot 100 chart, and spinning front pages welcoming the Ike and Tine Turner Revue to far-flung lands (or 'markets', as Ike saw them). Sometimes the projections even set the scene – 'Back in LA' – which is really rather unnecessary, at least for those who have been paying attention. (Bearable. Soon...)
Coupled with the inventive use of travelling barriers – which flash across the stage at regular intervals, whisking the performers off stage with them and allowing new scenes to be set in the blink of an eye – this comic book aesthetic begins to make sense. As a narrative device, it works well – rather than relying on a disembodied narrator, the imagery helps to mark the passing of the decades.
The inclusion of pre-recorded video scenes embedded in the projection also adds to the noir effect, with Wokoma as Tina expressing her frustrations with the music industry as a new mother, and continually defending the monstrous Ike (played with gusto by the charismatic Chris Cummings) in a sultry Southern drawl.
Tina's eventual conversion to Buddhism, and Ike's introduction to feminism, are both flimsily dealt with. Somehow the writers find deplorable humour in Ike's destructive drug abuse – and I'm reminded of Northern Ireland's own flawed icons who have been similarly embodied on stage – and don't go far enough to reveal the levels of violence and emotional abuse that characterised the Turners' marriage.
But then Soul Sister is an entertainment, not an unflinching drama, and by the time Tina has broken away from her troubled tormentor and set herself up as a big hair, big voice pop powerhouse in the 1980s – bringing a lifetime of experience and heartache to songs such as 'What's Love Gotta Do With It?' – the whole of the Grand Opera House crowd is bouncing and clapping along to her liberated tune. If the auditorium had windows, they would be very steamy indeed.
Is Soul Sister simply the best of its kind? I've seen better – but then the creators of Thriller: Live had much stronger material to draw from, whereas a lot of what Ike and Tina Turner produced or covered was run of the mill. Still, it's great fun and, ultimately, incredibly uplifting, and provides some genuine hair-on-end moments thanks to Wokoma's gargantuan vocal.
Soul Sister runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until Saturday, May 4.