‘A successful bachelor is always a puzzle to others,’ says the singer James Dinsmore, playing the composer and actor Ivor Novello. That’s probably the closest – indeed, the only – reference which writer John Cairney makes concerning Novello’s homosexuality. Which might strike you as odd; but then, as biographies go, the emphasis of this concert piece is quite definitely on the man’s music rather than his sleeping arrangements. An artistic decision, of course; but one that does rather gloss over the emotional realities behind Novello living with the actor Bobbie Andrews for more than 30 years.
Admittedly, at times there seemed to be more in the Ivor Novello Story about his mother Clara than the man himself. An internationally-renowned singing teacher and choral conductor in her own right, she is positioned as his principal inspiration, not just the source of the music which surrounded Novello from his earliest days but also (apparently) the object of affection in some of his earliest lyrics. Indeed, the only other notable woman mentioned in the show is the besotted fan who, during the Second World War, stole petrol coupons to follow him touring round the country. A court decided that Novello was also culpable and eventually sentenced him to a month in prison.
This is very much a concert performance; Dinsmore is joined by classically trained singers Daisy Henderson and Taylor Wilson, with Bill Kean providing a simple piano accompaniment. Yet, while Dinsmore is essentially always Novello, the others are at best symbols of the other characters in this story, chiefly there to perform the Novello-penned songs which punctuate the piece. Repeatedly, it must be said, with all the subtlety of a full stop, as the audience bursts into applause after every song.
Overall, this feels a rather uptight retelling of a man’s life, lacking any obvious drama or conflict. Yet there are nevertheless one or two moments of genuine emotional power. One such point is at the close of the first ‘act’, when the cast recount the first performance of Novello’s first big hit–’Keep The Home Fires Burning’. At its first public airing, Novello was apparently amazed at how quickly people picked up both the tune and words; it was almost as if ‘they already knew it’. Almost a century later, many in the audience ably proved that people (at least of a certain age) still do; almost certainly the kind of immortality that Novello himself most wanted.