All aboard for the showstopping return of Show Boat – review

All aboard for the showstopping return of Show Boat – review

It's one of the oldest musicals still treading the boards, but Show Boat has over the years proved its worth as a truly timeless favourite. And this latest production, newly transferred to London from the Sheffield Crucible, shows there's no rust whatsoever in this old boat as it delivers a truly sparkling evening of enchanting entertainment.

Show Boat is Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 1927 masterpiece which spawned a hugely popular 1951 MGM film starring Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson and that dreamy Howard Keel. Set against the backdrop of the American deep South at the turn of the 20th century, it follows the lives and loves of the performers, stage hands and dock workers on board the Cotton Blossom show boat that sails the Mississippi River.


As the black dock workers break their backs working for the ship and the on-stage performers encounter first love, loss and surprising hardship, we're spoiled with classic tunes such as Ol' Man River, Make Believe, Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man and After the Ball is Over – songs that truly make you melt even all these years after they were first written.

Among the throng of new West End musicals with high-tech gadgets and gizmos and political issues, it was a real treat to be able to step back in time and embrace all the charm and old-fashioned magic of such a gentle, nostalgic show like Show Boat. While some audiences might struggle with the slower pace, the predictable love story and the quaint characters, I thought it was one of the most endearing pieces of theatre I've seen in a long while.


The many different renditions of Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man that ran throughout the show were both rousing good fun and completely heart-breaking at times. The simple lightness to these old tunes and the charming story that surrounds them is such a privilege to experience, it feels a bit like indulgently settling down on the sofa with a warm cup of tea in hand and an old MGM musical classic on the telly on a drizzly bank holiday Monday.

Gina Beck as Magnolia Hawks has to get a special mention for her phenomenal vocal range that leaves you hanging on her every note, while Rebecca Trehearn blasts off all cobwebs from this retro show right from the start with some powerfully soulful performances that I craved to see more of.


Meanwhile, the dance routines were faultlessly delicious. Watch out for a moment of divine Gatsby-esque choreography towards the end as we head into the Twenties and I had to do all I could not to launch out of my seat and join in. 

This is a show that whole-heartedly deserves to be discovered by a modern audience – and one much bigger than was in the night I went – for its simplicity and old-fashioned charm, and truly delighted in by audiences who already know and love this sometimes overlooked, but nonetheless, beautiful classic musical.

  • Showboat is at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane. To book tickets visit
  • Images © Johan Persson
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