Elaine C Smith, centre in the white coat, as Susan Boyle among the hopefuls at the Glasgow audition for Britain's Got Talent - Pictures: Keith Pattison

I Dreamed a Dream

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

SUSAN BOYLE has managed the rare distinction of having a musical written about her life story, so far that is, without having to shuffle off her mortal coil first.

And, bizarrely, not only is the 51-year-old Scot very much alive but she is in the wings and even appeared at the end of the show, which is about her remember, to sing the song that changed her life, I dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables.

She also sang the beautiful Who I was Born to Be, written for her by young Oklahoma singer-songwriter Audra Mae, a grand niece of Judy Garland, and the only original song on Boyle's first album.

Both garnered standing ovations and it is a pity that Boyle does not perform concerts, the lady looks like she could be fun with no airs or graces and a sense of mischief about her – the most unlikely pop star ever.

And it takes a heart like an anvil not to say she deserved a break after seeing her life unfold in the musical written by Alan McHugh and Elaine C Smith – who also plays Susan.

The pair have had to use theatrical slight of hand with Smith explaining at the start that she is Susan's inner voice, the person Susan would be, saying the things Susan would say if she did not get so tongue tied and nervous in front of people, she was even thinking the things Susan would think. It is a device to allow the story to be told as Boyle herself and it works. Smith has the accent and enough physical resemblance to portray her as a character without falling into the trap of doing an impression.

McHugh and Smith also suffer from the fact Boyle, apart from Who I was Born to Be, sings cover versions and although I Dreamed a Dream won her fame it can hardly be said to be her song just as Nessun Dorma cannot be claimed by another unlikely Britain's Got Talent star, Paul Potts.

Seeing double: Elaine C Smith, left, who co-wrote I Dreamed a Dream, the Susan Boyle story, and who plays the Britain's Got Talent star, with Susan Boyle herself

Since Rose Laurens gave J'avais rêvé d'une autre vie to the world in 1980 the English version of the song has been covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin and Neil Diamond to the cast of Glee.

The solution is another theatrical device, using it in snatches as a recurring theme among a collection of songs from the era which are slotted in seemingly, at times, because a line or so fits in with the story – though as to why four coal smeared miners in helmets would be singing Daydream Believer as they clocked on, or possibly off,  apart from the line about the six o'clock alarm going off, is anyone's guess.

The significance of the 16th century Scottish ballad about Mary Hamilton, The Four Marys, fine song that it is, was also lost but the music does give some poignant moments though, such as when Boyle sings Someone to Watch Over Me at the raucous karaoke contest and an emotional moment at the end of the first act when her father dies.

Her mother, played with great sympathy by Karen Mann, sings the hymn How Great Thou Art, while Boyle sings The Prayer and her dead father sings Scarlet Ribbons. Musically it should be a mess, it shouldn't work – but it does.

Her father is played by James Paterson who shows his opera background with a fine tenor voice.

But back to Boyle. When fate dealt her cards at her birth she got a real stinker of a hand but she did have a joker – her voice.

It was a difficult birth for elderly parents Bridget and Pat. She was the last of nine children and was deprived of oxygen during the delivery – never a good start and it meant she was always going to be different. She had learning difficulties and, with the cruelty of children the world over, was bullied at school where she was apparently called Simple Susan.

Director Ed Curtis gave us a stark, black and white scene to show the unhappy childhood. Then, when she did have a glimpse of normality with a boyfriend, John (Gordon Cooper), her father put a stop to it and forced them apart. Lonely spinsterhood and unemployment beckoned.

But she still had her voice. She won the Happy Valley Karaoke Completion and encouraged by her singing teacher Fred O'Neil (David Haydn) finally entered the third series of Britain's Got Talent when she apparently sang in public for the first time since her mother had died.

The audition gives an insight into the appeal of the programme with the delusional, talentless no-hopers and mentally unbalanced weirdoes that it attracts and, sadly, which in turn attract viewers - and Boyle was firmly seen in that category. Looks and dress sense were hardly a strong point and she had a hairstyle that looked as if she had a severe electric shock.

Smith played the audition scene to perfection. People had roared at her silly wiggle, this was cruelty TV giving everyone a good laugh at another of life's unfortunates. It was time to play that joker fate had dealt her.

Smith, who has a fine voice herself, managed to recreate the unforgettable magic, another Paul Potts moment, when Boyle went from the loony lass good for a laugh to global superstar in just a few bars.

The contrast of her fame in the second act to her humdrum struggle in the first is cleverly marked as we see Boyle collapse under the weight of expectation and media attention, some of it cruel beyond belief.

Smith as Boyle recording her fine version of The Rolling Stones' Wild Horses, which was on her first album

But the Press and media were not the only ones to blame, as the musical seems to imply. The producers of BGT and ITV were making millions out of the show and were happily fuelling the publicity machine – as they still do.  A line about their duty of care, or rather lack of it, might not have gone amiss.

The musical documents a modern day fairy-tale. Boyle's voice is not as polished, trained or accomplished as many but she has a purity of tone and a clarity you can't teach and it is a very honest voice. Boyle, you feel, lives her life through that voice - and, most important of all, people like it.

She is almost an anti-star, a rebellion against the norm. She is too old and too ordinary and, without being unkind, she  is hardly hot stuff, as they say; there will be few Susan Boyle posters up on teenagers' bedroom walls methinks while banks of scantily clad, lithe bodied dancers, pyrotechnics and laser shows just would not work in a Boyle performance.

Yet despite all of that she is a star and her albums sell in their millions.

The musical could have ended up as sentimental tosh, or a mawkish wallow but, although it is sympathetic, it shows quite a few warts, has a tale to tell and has plenty of gentle humour, perhaps stemming from McHugh's background as a writer of panto.

The set is a bank of old TVs that look as if they have been rescued from a local tip but the ramshackle video wall designed by Morgan Large works well to set scenes without being distracting.

Boyle, a big Rab C Nesbitt fan, was once asked who she would like to play her in a story of her life. She said immediately Elaine C Smith. She got her wish and Smith does not let he down. She is just magnificent leading a cast who are all superb in what is a very human story.

A mention as well for an excellent seven piece band under musical director Kennedy Aitchison.

As a show it is rather like Boyle's first BGT appearance. The curtain rises and, to be honest, I was hardly expecting just how good it turned out to be. It is full of charm and humour- real old-fashioned, feel-good theatre. To 02-06-12.

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile day dreaming at the back . . .

*****

JUST how popular Susan Boyle has become since shooting to fame on Britain's Got Talent was underlined in red when the 51-year-old singer made a surprise appearance on stage at the end of the opening night performance of her life story.

The packed audience rose to their feet cheering, whooping and applauding the modest Scottish lass who overcame many obstacles to become a global sensation.

And when she treated them to her version of that song from Les Miserables, and her voice briefly broke through emotion, the customers loved her even more and Susan rewarded them with a second song from her repertoire - Who I was Born to Be. "I had a frog in my throat,"she chuckled.

Then she took even more applause with the cast of the show, and gave a special hug to Elaine C. Smith who plays the remarkable star so beautifully.

Elaine was playing a church organist in Calendar Girls in 2009 when, during the interval, Lynda Bellingham and Patricia Hodge  - who had been taking a peek at the telly - ran out of their dressing rooms saying "Did you see this wee woman from Glasgow? What a volice! I was crying".

On being told the singer was like her, from Scotland, Elaine laughed: "I don't want to see it - I'll end up playing her in the story of her life".

How prophetic. Now Ms Smith has become a star playing a star. Her acting and singing are first class. You'd swear it was Susan, at times.

This musical life story includes much humour, sadness and drama as Susan has to cope with the sudden impact of fame....pursued by newspaper, TV and radio reporters and photographers. But she survived the pressure and is now comfortable with her unexpected fame.

A fine cast has been brought together for this musical, and James Paterson is in splendid voice as Susan's dad.

Directed by Ed Curtis, with Kennedy Aitchison's musical direction, this dream of a show runs to 02.06.12

Paul Marston 

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