What's art got to do, got to do with it

“Welcome to the Aldwych Theatre. Please have your tickets ready to hand and your bags ready and open for security checks as you go in through the door.”

I’ve heard this message broadcast a thousand times. Seen the queues outside the theatre a thousand more. But today it’s actually happening. I’m going in. I’m watching Tina - The Tina Turner Musical tonight.

I haven’t called upon the theatre gods in a good long while, but if ever I needed them, it’s now.

I got into the West End early today. At 6.30 people were already getting their tickets ready and having their bags checked in the doorway to the Aldwych. I thought it was only ballet audiences that turned up an hour before curtain-up, but it looks like Tina Turner fans are also in favour of turning up early, for a trip to the bar and the loo and the merch desk and… well, that’s it. I don’t think there is much else on offer. But I guess I’m going to find out.

Not quite yet though. I leave the early birders to have their pre-show pees in peace and wander off to have a look what’s happening on the Strand. Emilia is out. BalletBoyz is in. Waitress is still serving up their unhealthy snacks, 9 to 5 remains in working order. Mammia Mia continues to go again.

It’s seven o’clock now. It’s no good. I can’t avoid it anymore. I’m going to have to go in.

Does it sound like I’m dreading this whole thing? There’s a reason for that. It’s because I’m dreading this whole thing.

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical would very much fall into the ‘only for the marathon’ category of booking for me. I would absolutely, positively, never have seen this show if I didn’t need to get the Aldwych theatre ticked off my list. It’s the kind of show that if my mum asked me to get tickets, I would have told her it was sold out and got her a ticket to the next Matthew Bourne instead. I would have used any excuse. I would not have come here even if you paid me.

Well, okay, that’s a lie. You could have paid me. Fifty quid and a free programme would have done it. But not a penny less.

Now, you know how storytelling works. You think that the reason I’m going so hard on the hate right now is so that, when I come out of the theatre at the end of the night, and have to admit that I secretly rather loved it, and that this musical is not the commercial landfill I suspect it to be, but is instead a glorious celebration of triumph over adversity, it will be all the more victorious. The silly theatre-snob is forced to concede that she was won over by the magnificence of Tina - The Tina Turner Musical.

All I can say is: I hope you’re right. I really do.

Because right now, I’m standing in a queue of people take selfies with the signage and… I’m really fucking dreading it.

The queue shuffles along slowly, past the sandwich shop next door, inching our way towards the theatre.

“Welcome to the Aldwych Theatre. Please have your tickets ready to hand and your bags ready and open for security checks as you go in through the door.”

There’s that message again, and again, and again. It’s playing on a loop.

I feel sorry for the people working security here. They must wake in the night covered in a cold sweat and gasping “welcome to the Aldwych,” as they slam upright in bed.

“Have your bag open and ready,” calls one of them as I draw nearer to the door.

My bag is open. And ready.

And wow, this is an intense bag search. She rummages around, moving my scarf about as she reaches in first down the bag, then the front. She clasps something and wriggles it to the top. My umbrella. They always seem to latch onto my umbrella.

As she pokes and prods at my belongings, I let my gaze wander. The Aldwych is quite the theatre. I’ve never been inside before. All stained glass signage and carved stonework outside and gold fiddly bits and wedding cakes vibes inside. But as I look around, I realise that there’s something that doesn’t quite go with the Edwardian extravaganza that they’ve got going on here. A laminated sign. Stuck to the window.

“BODY SCANNING & BAG SEARCHES,” it screams in all caps.

Body scanning? Blimey. Bit much isn’t it?


My bag checker gives me a nod and steps back to let me pass. If the body scanners are out tonight, they don’t come for me.

“Can I check your ticket?” says the ticket checker on the next set of doors.

“Err, I’m heading to the box office?” I say, indicating the queue I’m aiming for.

He nods and waves me forward.

My second queue of the night is fast moving, and I’m soon up at the second of two windows, giving my surname and getting a ticket in exchange.


What’s next on the list of things to do? Merch desk. Always a favoured haunt for me. I do love merch.

I push myself through the crowds to the other side of the foyer. All of four metres takes a full minute to get through. But I’m there.

Two ladies are at the counter and they have quite the shopping list.

T-shirts. Mugs. Magnets.

They’re picking the place clean.

The two staff members behind the counter flutter around, getting things out to show them. One of them holds up a t-shirt so the two ladies can gauge the size.

 “What size is that? A small?” one asks.

The t-shirt holder nods. It’s a small.

They tilt their heads. “Do you think that’ll fit her?”

The fact that the t-shirt is made of material so thin, the face of the t-shirt holder is entirely visible through it, doesn’t seem to worry either of them.

I glance at the price list. Twenty-three quid for a see-through t-shirt. No. Wait. That’s wrong. This is the glitter-version that they are pondering over. My mistake. Twenty-five quid.


Then I see it. The first line. Right at the top. “Souvenir Programmes £10.” I reel back, a literal, physical, reaction to the price. Ten pounds. Ten actual, British, pounds. Now, I know the pound ain’t worth all that much anymore, but it should buy more than a single, solitary programme.

I step back, retreating from the queue. I can’t spend ten actual, British, pounds on a programme. Can I? Surely there are limits to my commitment to programmes, and this has to be it. I have a printed ticket. It’s not like I will be walking away without something tangible to despair over on those damp Sunday afternoons that I dedicate to going through all my theatre-stuff.

A man hovers nearby, ready to take my place in the queue.

I had to make a decision. Was I in? Or out?

The man creeps closer.

I grit my teeth. I’m in. I’m buying that programme.

The women in front are paying.

“I think we’ll need a bigger bag,” laughs one of the assistants as the mug just won’t fit in alongside all those t-shirts.

Bigger bag fetched, and mug inserted, the two ladies are off.

“Jesus wept,” huffs the man before neatly stepping in front of me.


When it’s my turn, the woman behind the counter apologies for the wait, and I get my programme without further incident other than a little queasiness as I type in my pin number (ten actual, British, pounds!).

With the programme tucked under my arm I make my way to the Grand Circle, which is, as it turns out, the highest circle the Aldwych has, and only accessible via a separate staircase. Behind this door, I step into a world far away from the wedding cake architecture of the foyer, and instead plunge into the land of green walls and endless stairs. Not that grand at all. And it’s a long way up to the top floor. I trudge my way up. It’s been a while since I’ve had to use the pauper’s steps in a theatre.

But it is nice up here, I must admit. The lamps are all geometric stained glass vases. Gold mouldings offset the flat green. And we’re right up under the dome, which is something I always enjoy. I do love a good dome.

I work my way to my seat. They’re covered in a plush red velvet. Very attractive. Except, once again, I’m getting that strange feeling of something being wrong. I stare at my seat for a good long time before I realise what it is.

No armrests.


Well, that’s okay. That’s fine. It’s not like theatres out there don’t have bench seats. There’s no rule to say that a seat needs armrests just because it’s in the West End.

I sit down.

The seats are really narrow. Like really narrow. Aeroplane narrow.

Now, I’m a size ten. Okay, size twelve. (Hush, you). And this seat is seriously fucking narrow.

We’re really going to be closely-packed here.

I flounder around with my programme. There’s no room to open it properly. It’s a big programme. I’ll give them that. Oversized. But not all together generous on the content side of things. Biogs, credits, some production photography, a double page spread of rehearsal shots, and a couple of short articles. It’s fine. Not worth a tenner though. No way. No with the amount they must go flog every night. How much would these cost to print? They have a perfect binding (the flat edge that you’ll find on the fancier side of magazines, Vogue and that) and that costs a bit. Thirty pence or so per programme, which is not insignificant. But the rest? The whole thing can’t come in at over £1.50. They must be making a killing on these things.

I stuff it in my bag. Stuff being the operative word as I have to wiggle it in my increments to get it to fit.

Right, that’s freed up some space.

But my neighbours have arrived. And we’re really sitting close. I can feel every time my right neighbour juggles her knee, and every time my left neighbour rolls her hip.

Pack the fuckers in and drain them dry, that seems to be the motto of this theatre.

“Welcome to this performance of Tina - The Tina Turner Musical,” says a voice over the sound system. “In consideration of your fellow audience members please refrain from singing along. There will be the opportunity to sing and dance with us at the end.”

There’s a whoop from the back of the Grand Circle.

Someone approves.

It does seem to be a bit of a mood killer though.

As the first notes pound out, the audience starts to clap in time and then quickly stops. No one is sure whether clapping is allowed.

Instead we settle in for what has the be the longest first act in history, lasting approximately fourteen weeks and three days before the interval roles around. Fourteen weeks and three days without clapping, joy, or even much in the way of interest.

I had come to Tina - The Tina Turner Musical expecting a cynical cash grab on behalf of the commercial theatre overlords of the West End, but nothing could have prepared me for this. As the audience in the Grand Circle stand up to stretch their legs, I pull out the programme. There’s an article by the book writer. I remember seeing it. I flick through looking for it. Ah! There it is. I quickly scan the piece and instantly see the problem. This is Tina Turner’s story. And I don’t mean it’s about Tina Turner. I mean, it’s her version of the story. It’s the story she wanted to tell. Which means this bloated, overlong, show feels the need to honour every single person in Tina Turner’s life. Do we care about Tina Turner relationship to her grandmother? I sure don’t. But Tina Turner is damn well making sure that we know about it.


There’s just so many characters that I don’t give the tiniest shit about. So many scenes that don’t drive on the action. Infuriating, when there is clearly such a strong three act structure buried under all this nonsense (the rise of Ike and Tina Tina, the fall of Ike and Tina Turner, the rise of Tina Turner without Ike Turner).

Legs stretched, everyone settles back in for an uncomfortable second act.

At least this one is short.

There’s a shiver of anticipation through the audience as Nkeki Obi-Melekwe quotes Tuner's most famous lyric: what’s love got to do with it.

Is it coming? Are we getting the big number?

We are. Thank the theatre gods.

After that, things start to perk up. Big tunes! Big ambition! And even bigger hair! This is what we are all here for.

Over by the far wall, the ushers have all crept in to watch the finale. Either it’s an unmissable show, or something serious is about to kick off in the audience. Either way, I’m excited.

As Obi-Melekwe blazes out some bangers, a few people get to their feet to bop along. But they are spread out thin up here.

It’s a different matter in the stalls.

Front rowers stretch out their hands to Obi-Melekwe, and she obliges them by coming forward to grab them. You can feel the crackle of connection between them. Even from up here.

That’s where the real Tina Turner fans are sitting. They’re having great fun down there.

These are the people who wake up and pour their morning coffee into their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical mug. They'll walk the dog in their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical, twenty-five pound glitter t-shirt. They'll stick the kids' drawings on the fridge with their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical magnet.

These are the people who genuinely want to hear more about Tina Turner’s grandmother.

And these are the people who will walk away from the Aldwych with more than the nagging feeling that they’ve just been used as a wallet-on-legs.