A rock history’s journey to happiness – Tina the Musical at the Aldwych Theatre

I always respected Tina Turner more for her voice, her energetic attitude and age-refusing charisma than for the music played by the mainstream radio stations. GoldenEye was her only song I would turn up and no one ever played her early rock stuff or The Acid Queen from The Who’s 1974 musical film Tommy we watched in school: Tina Turner was for years tidily put in to the “parent’s music” pigeonhole.

When I agree to go to see the Tina – The Musical I am assured repeatedly by people having been to the shows in both London’s West End and Hamburg and further to actual Tina Turner concerts it is, you guessed it, simply the best tribute show out anywhere.

We are happy with the view from the packed Grand Circle: Because the seats do not lift and we must go pass an elderly couple with walking sticks and a highly pregnant lady, we agree that instead they shift up and we take their seats. Later, when leaving, I realise we are sitting in the row where Sennheiser yet again makes a West End show acoustically accessible for people hard of hearing – bravo!

Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 in Tennessee, Tina’s life begins as a girl experiencing domestic abuse very early on: When her mother finally walks out on her religious but wife-beating husband, she takes only one daughter with her – Anna Mae stays and will follow her only years later to St. Louis. Reunited, her sister introduces her to the late 1950s nightlife accessible for black people and her voice is discovered by Ike Turner and his band, the Kings of Rhythm. It is 1960 when the first record including the name Tina Turner is published – decided above her head, Anna’s preferred stage name Little Ann just sounded too much of a country bumpkin, Ike decided. He decides everything among the musicians and friends he surrounds himself with; Tina goes along, tours, performs and marries him in ’62 while pregnant from another band member. Notoriously cheating on her and openly addicted to cocaine, Ike is dictatorial and violent towards her and their sons and it will take 16 years for her to hit back, to kick back again and again when he is already laying on the floor; the audience cheers and I wonder if they either know a lot less about domestic violence than me, or a lot more.

Not having seen a single dollar of earnings even after recording with Phil Spector and supporting the Rolling Stones Tina is penniless when she takes her sons and leaves Ike. Supported only by her manager she moves to Las Vegas, “the singer’s graveyard”, where she cleans toilets before her gigs to make ends meet. Nicknamed James-Brown-in-a-skirt she tours now solo with the help of a new manager. Blessed with healthy hearing the first sound really giving me the shivers is the one of an airplane when Tina leaves the UK from a recording session at Abbey Road Studios in the early 1980s. But I hear plane noise in West London every single day and surely these seats are not cheap enough for this intended as the first outstanding sound effect: We have already been taken through four decades of rock history!

During the interval we quickly conclude that the lady having played Tina’s initial manager has a far better voice than the lead. Are we sitting too far away from the stage for the sound to reach out? Or has the highly annoying, constant noise of sweets in plastic pouches and drink cups around us spoilt the sound quality?

Tina finds a new, much hipper sound, a new love and is now touring with her signature wig for world success. Turning to Buddhism the relationship with her family stays difficult and when she shockingly meets Ike again at her mother’s hospital bed, she refuses to go to her funeral. Tina breaks one music record after another and is still haunted by the journey of her life – as in the beginning of the show we see her backstage, meditating and finally she goes on stage and we, the audience at the Aldwych Theatre, are her audience. And Tina rocks! People around us are jumping up, dancing and singing, knowing each word, each move. And the sound kicks in and feels real and live and I wonder why this has taken so long?

This is an amazing survival story of emancipation by an exceptional icon who had everyone against her for most of her life and even for a tribute musical this is a finale like no other but surely, we deserved to be musically moved beforehand?

Tina The Musical – book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins

*** out of 5 stars

We paid £60.90 for each ticket in the theatre’s Grand Circle row E (limited legroom, no armrest)

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