Who really was The jazz Singer?

PUBLISHED: 10:24 26 March 2009 | UPDATED: 17:26 16 August 2010

DROP down on one knee, wave your hands in the air and croon Mammy! and everyone knows you re impersonating Al Jolson, writes Mark Campbell.

DROP down on one knee, wave your hands in the air and croon "Mammy!" and everyone knows you're impersonating Al Jolson, writes Mark Campbell.

But who exactly was this American entertainer, famous in his day for blacking up and making the first full-length talkie, The Jazz Singer?

Jolson & Co, by Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow, aimed to answer that question in a slick biographical revue that incorporated flashbacks from Jolson's colourful life with the songs that made him popular.

Seen recently at Bromley's Churchill Theatre, the show was educational as well as entertaining.

As Jolson (Allan Stewart) recounts his life story to radio presenter Barry Gray (Christopher Howell) a year before his death in 1950. Scenes from his life play out in deftly sketched vignettes, with Howell and Donna Steele brilliantly impersonating a myriad other characters.

Hanan and Berkow's script paints a remarkably acidic picture of a man who wore his ego on his sleeve and put personal fame - and the money it earned him - above everything else.

A serial womaniser, he worked his way through four wives and several mistresses.

Glaswegian entertainer Allan Stewart was absolutely first rate as Jolson: a dynamic bundle of energy who rattled through songs such as Babyface and California Here I Come with enough charisma to power a small city.

His characterization was excellent, and if the Bromley audience was a little reticent in joining in with the songs, this was more to do with their natural reserve than any failure on his part.

Greg Arrowsmith's on-stage band provided the bouncy music numbers (although most of the time they were hidden behind a curtain), while director Ed Curtis made the evening whizz by.

My one complaint was that despite references in the script, Stewart never blacked up once as Jolson - even when the last number in Act 1 was crying out for it. PC or not, this was what Jolson was most famous for and should have been included, even if only briefly.

* The current production at the Churchill Theatre is HMS Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan, from 24 - 28 March, 2009. Tickets: 0870 060 6620.

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