Soul at Hackney Empire
A compilation of Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits plays during the interval of Soul, a new play by Roy Williams billed as the “untold story” of the legendary singer. Though it’s rounded off in rousing fashion by brief a cappella interpretation of What’s Goin’ On from the live community choir that feature in the show, this interlude comes as a bittersweet reminder of what’s sorely missing when the curtain is open.
With the rights to Gaye’s music the closely guarded property of a major Hollywood studio, Soul is a musical biopic strangely devoid of much in the way of actual soul music. Thanks to the expert harmonies of the aforementioned choir, it’s gospel standards that instead sweetly permeate a first half featuring Keenan Munn-Francis as an adolescent Marvin, finding his way in the world in the constant shadow his father, the pious disciplinarian minister (Leo Wringer) who would ultimately shoot him dead on the eve of his 45th Birthday.
The lack of licensing begins to jar to an especially noticeable degree in a second act, in which Nathan Ives-Moiba assumes the role of Marvin as an adult and international chart success. Aided both by an uncanny resemblance to the great man and a forensically accurate study of his mannerisms, Ives-Moiba’s portrayal is the highlight of the piece, but it’s a highlight undeniably tempered by the disappointment of never seeing it flourish in a full-bodied vocal performance.
To be largely deprived of the raw energy and dynamism of Gaye’s iconic catalogue places the play at a disadvantage that its patchy and unfocused script struggles to overcome. Far from being an “untold story”, the tale unfolds in rather broad narrative strokes that draw on the most widely publicised aspects of Gaye’s life for inspiration, with his song-crafting genius no more of a feature than the philandering and substance abuse that he held in common with his father.
As if in an attempt to substitute the emotional response that the Prince of Soul’s best-loved songs can elicit, the story maintains a determined focus on the angst and conflict that such troubles engendered within the Gaye household. By making the singer’s lifelong paternal feud its unwavering through-line, this is a biography that feels less like a celebration of his life than a mere morbid exploration of events leading to his death.
Soul is on at Hackney Empire from 15th June until 3rd July 2016. Buy your tickets here.