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BWW Review: THE BODYGUARD, Dominion Theatre, 21 July 2016

Gunshots! Flames! Shirtless dancing hunks! And that's just the first five minutes. This eye-wateringly bombastic musical has all subtlety, production values and narrative logic of a Donald Trump rally. Thoughtful, incisive drama? Er, no. Winningly OTT kitsch with killer song delivery? Hell yes. Come for the copious dry ice and cheese-tastic effects - stay for the "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" encore singalong.

Based on the critically mauled 1992 movie starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, it follows in the inescapable tradition of jukebox musicals: great songs awkwardly glued together by hokey plotting and (almost literally) unspeakable dialogue. Alexander Dinelaris does some half-hearted updating of Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay, but this is best taken as an escapist period piece, far removed from present reality.

The story, such as it is, centres on diva superstar Rachel Marron, under threat by a standard-issue murderous stalker (loner, ex-military - fill in the clichéd blanks). She butts heads with new bodyguard Frank Farmer, but antipathy soon turns to romance - complicated by her overshadowed sister developing feelings for him as well. However, the love triangle is perfunctory, and the thriller plot lacks any real thrills. Those hoping for surprising twists or clever reveals will come away disappointed.

But if you studiously ignore the narrative framing, or benignly indulge it as hammy throwback, this is a joyful evening thanks to the sensational Whitney Houston back catalogue, electrifyingly performed by the show's headliners. Soul singer Beverley Knight, who last played Rachel in 2013 at the Adelphi, returns for the new Dominion run, and the Beverley-does-Whitney arena gig is worth the price of admission. Whether strutting her way through the funky up-tempo numbers, belting out ballads with impressive vocal acrobatics or finding an intimate register for "Greatest Love of All", picked out on a piano, Knight is a mesmerising presence.

A witty karaoke sequence aside, she's less convincing in the drama and a tentative dancer, but does find the odd note of genuine conflict between a love of public performance and fear at erosion of privacy and security - amplified for celebs in the social media age. But she's got strong competition from Rachel John as the talented sister muscled out of the spotlight. Her rich, honeyed tone, beautifully supported top notes and delicate yearning complement and contrast with Knight's stirring musical interpretation in showstopping duet "Run To You".

Ben Richards has a tough job to illuminate stiff, manly man ken doll Frank, who only sings once, badly, for comedic purposes. He does inject some droll charisma, most engaging when interacting with Rachel's cute kid - Jaden Oshenye proving a smooth mover. There's little for the supporting cast, but Dominic Taylor pops as the zealously ambitious publicist, and a well-drilled chorus deliver the rather anodyne pop choreography.

Tim Hatley's location-hopping design is movie-meets-concert: sliding panels framing the action, (deliberately?) hilarious video montages, and pyrotechnic set-pieces. It's more filmic than theatrical, but allows for slick, fluid presentation. Director Thea Sharrock wisely plays up the hen party, semi-parodic elements, delivering the weaker material with a hearty wink and encouraging panto cues (Boo! Whoop! Boogie!). The only issue is the roving lights, often blinding the audience and masking the odd actual character beat.

Still, those looking for a high-voltage West End night out will get their money's worth. Textured drama it is not, but it's hard to deny that we will always love Whitney's songs.

Picture credit: Alessandro Pina

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From This Author Marianka Swain