Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 23 April 2012

Soul Sister

Hackney Empire ⋄ 14th April - 5th May 2012

It takes one.

Sarah Perry

The words ‘a star is born’ have about them a vaguely spiteful air, as if there could be no more certain a way of ensuring a potentially stellar career disappears into a black hole. But such is the potency of Emi Wokoma’s turn in Soul Sister that no amount of tempting the fates could stop her trajectory: it is unmistakably star-making, and the making also of this new bio-musical on the life and sad, glorious times of Tina Turner.

Devised by John Miller and Peter Brooks, the show takes a conventional approach, fitting numbers from the Tina and Ike back catalogue alongside formative moments in her life and career. She begins as naive schoolgirl Anna Mae Bullock, all bobby socks and tightly buttoned coat, her shy gap-toothed smile concealing a voice that would lift the rafters from the Royal Albert Hall. Along comes Ike (Chris Tummings), with the narrow tie and narrower hips of an unmistakeable bounder, and confers on her both her name and a punishing schedule of concerts from Tennessee to Chicago. Wokoma transforms from Anna Mae to Tina so effortlessly it is almost like watching an especially entertaining case of possession: by the close, Turner’s famous, furious strut – all sex and fury and thigh-muscle – is firmly in place, the gauche schoolgirl forgotten, the audience on its feet.

Of course, the beauty of this approach is largely that it permits a glorious reprisal of the songs that defined not simply Turner’s career, but the decades it spanned, from Chuck Berry-era rock’n’roll, complete with crooning Ikettes, to the eighties pop-rock glory of Simply The Best. Wokoma masters every note of every song, not merely as an impression of Turner (though certainly she pulls this off with spooky accuracy) but as actress. Singing on her knees, shortly after another beating at the hands of Ike, there is barely suppressed anguish behind each phrase. It is this, as much as her power-house voice, which I suspect will propel Wokoma into the West End firmament before the year is out: she feels as well as she sings.

Chris Tummings has rather a thankless task, and his performance cannot match Wokoma’s, but he is sufficiently effective as villain for there to have been audible boos as he took his bow. Choreographer Jason Pennycooke has plainly had a blast, with witty dancing from the Ikettes that adapts to the passing years. The musicians who accompany Tina and Ike are a delight to watch, and the clever conceit of using graphic novel-style backdrops keeps the narrative focus clear.

The book is far from perfect, and between musical numbers the rather sub-Hollyoaks dialogue has nowhere to hide: it clunks along with changes of gear as audible as a Morris Minor struggling uphill. But no-one will be arriving at the doors of the Empire for nuanced dialogue: they will come to see Tina Turner very nearly in person, and an electrifying turn from Wokoma that’ll leave palms stinging with applause.


Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry has written on theatre, travel, food and the law for a number of publications including the Spectator. She has recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing under the supervision of Sir Andrew Motion, and devotes her newly free time to Sherlock Holmes, the Regent's Canal and a piano neglected too long. She is represented by the literary agency Rogers, Coleridge and White.

Soul Sister Show Info

Directed by Bob Eaton

Written by John Miller and Peter Brooks

Cast includes Emi Wokoma, Chris Tummings




Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.