Review – Hairspray, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st January 2022

HairspraySome shows are like comfort food. When times are tough you have a longing for their reassurance, their positivity, their reminder of the Good Old Days, and their sheer effervescent sense of fun. Hairspray is one such show and is back on the road again with a UK tour and is packing them out at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday 5th February.

Edna, Wilbur and TracyLike all the best musicals, this one is deceptively ferocious at heart. Behind its cutesy bubble gum facade is a portrayal of racial prejudice and segregation. Terms like “coloured music” and “negro day” hit you hard and land uncomfortably in the context of an upbeat goofy show, But coming together in the name of music and fun can wipe away injustice, and once the young people start dancing together, it’s unstoppable. You can’t stop the beat, in fact.

Wilbur and TracyYou probably know the set-up already: Tracy Turnblad longs to be a TV star but she has neither the figure nor the middle class background to break into the big time. When she tries to audition for Corny Collins’ music and dance show, she comes up against the ruthless producer Velma whose sole ambition is to get her pretty but obnoxious daughter Amber into the limelight, primarily by fixing her to win the “Miss Teenage Hairspray” title. But Tracy’s natural vivacity and talent shine through and when Corny sees her perform he insists on her being in the show.

Full castIn 1962 Baltimore there’s racial segregation everywhere, and Velma has an “all-white” policy for the show. Tracy tries to use her new influence to break down this barrier by organising a protest march for all the dancers on the show to demand full racial integration. The march gets out of hand, the police are called, they’re all arrested, but “the new Elvis”, Link, sneaks into the prison and helps Tracy escape so that she can get back to the studio just in time to win the coveted title. In what turns out to be a very moral story, good wins through and Velma and Amber are left licking their wounds.

Tracy in full swingPaul Kerryson’s production first saw light of day at the Leicester Curve a few years back and has the big benefit of Drew McOnie’s choreography, which drives forward the story of the songs just as much as the lyrics do, rather than being a mere attractive accompaniment to them. The dance routines are true to the 1960s era and invested with a terrific physicality and liveliness that’s a joy to watch. You’ve got to be as fit as a fiddle to do justice to this choreography, but the whole cast is up to the task and nail it. Danny Belton’s band are full of zest as they bring out the best of Ben Atkinson’s musical arrangements of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score, and there are plenty of musical highlights that thrill the audience, from the opening ebullience of Good Morning Baltimore, the lyrical insight of Run and Tell That, the heart-warming charm of You’re Timeless to Me to the ultimate finale You Can’t Stop the Beat that sends everyone out into the cold night with joy in their souls, and still has them singing it the next day.

Wilbur and MotormouthThe original film starred Divine as Edna and since then it’s always been a given that she should be played by a bloke in a dress. Not entirely sure why; it just is. For this tour, Edna is played by Alex Bourne, who cuts a very statuesque figure, positively looming over everything and everyone else on stage; I’m surprised he doesn’t get a nosebleed up there. He’s made the (I think) wise decision not to feminise his voice at all, and he’s a great exponent of musical theatre with a terrific stage presence. His/her Wilbur is played by Norman Pace, a big favourite with the audience; emphasising the wide-eyed innocence and buffoonery of the character. In their own little way, Edna and Wilbur are such a force for good; decent, honest, kind, generous people, so we love spending time with them and their endearing little foibles, brought out perfectly in their rendition of You’re Timeless to Me, which had exactly the right amount of fooling around and fourth-wall breaking.

Tracy and EdnaRebecca Thornhill is absolutely stunning as the vicious Velma, an elegant vision of arrogance and cruelty, often being carried aloft by a group of men as a representation of her effortless superiority. She brings out both the humour and the horror of the character perfectly. And Brenda Edwards, with a voice that could move mountains, returns to reprise her role as Motormouth Maybelle, winning our hearts with a sensational performance of I Know Where I’ve Been that brings the house down.

TracyHairspray is a show that always gets the best out of its young performers –  it’s a perfect place to spot stars of the future. For our performance, understudy Joshua Pearson played Link Larkin, and he was foot- and pitch-perfect all the way through, absolutely getting the character’s blend of stage-arrogance but real life kindness; he did a brilliant job. You can’t take your eyes off Charlotte St Croix whenever she’s onstage as Little Inez, a diminutive powerhouse of attitude and voice. Rebecca Jayne-Davies shows great versatility as the much put-upon Penny Pingleton who blossoms into an assured young woman, and there’s great work from Reece Richards as Seaweed, Jessica Croll as Amber and all the guys and girls of the Ensemble.

Velma and her crewBut there’s no doubt that the night belongs to Katie Brace as Tracy, in her professional debut. Full of zing and charm, bursting with personality, terrific singing and dancing and wholly believable in a role where it would be so easy to go way over the top into pantomime. She’s a complete ray of sunshine and definitely a star of the future.

EdnaIt’s impossible not to be wowed by this show and carried away with its upbeat vibe. It’s not like Mrs Chrisparkle to be the first on her feet with an ovation but there was no holding her back last night. A night of genuine warmth, fun and masses of feelgood factor. Hairspray is alive and well and living in Northampton, and it would be a crime to miss it!


Production photos by Mark Senior

Five Alive Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Kiss Me Kate, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 21st July 2012

Kiss Me KateStill on our annual Chichester visit, we survived dinner and made our way back to the theatre with the amassing throngs of people wanting a good night out. Trevor Nunn directing a new version of Kiss Me Kate? Obviously a prospect just too delicious to resist, so it was with eager anticipation that we took our Saturday night seats at the packed Festival Theatre on what must have been the first beautiful summer’s evening we’ve had this year.

Hannah WaddinghamThe set is satisfyingly designed by Robert Jones and features a nice proscenium arch stuck at a jaunty angle, cleverly suggestive of a traditional show portrayed in a wacky way. The backstage scenes look suitably unglamorous; and the scene changes that take place within the “Taming of the Shrew” show are realised by unfurling flimsy fabric backdrop sheets out of a travelling trunk, which is a clever and appropriate idea, and would indeed be very useful for the Venice, Verona, Cremona, Parma, Mantua, Padua tour; although in reality they do come across a little tawdry to look at.

Alex Bourne Of all the old Hollywood versions of stage musicals Kiss Me Kate is one of my top favourites. In this Chichester production I found it very hard not to compare the performers with others we’ve seen in the roles before. Comparisons are odious, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t come up with a little odiousness in this review. The last time we saw Kiss Me Kate was at the Savoy Theatre in 1988 with Nichola McAuliffe playing Lilli/Katharine. It was a crowning glory of a performance and she has been a particular favourite of Mrs Chrisparkle ever since. Ms McAuliffe’s “I Hate Men” is as strong a reference point as Dame Edith Evans’ “A Handbag?” So any future Lilli/Katharine has a big task ahead of her in Mrs C’s eyes.

Holly Dale Spencer But we had high hopes for Hannah Waddingham, whom we last saw turn in a devastatingly brilliant performance in the Menier’s devastatingly brilliant A Little Night Music a few years ago. And I’m delighted to say Ms Waddingham is every bit as good in this show as you would expect her to be. She breathes charming life into that old plodder “Wunderbar”, is very tender with “So in Love”; and does all the comic business as a furious on-stage Lilli getting revenge on Fred in a genuinely funny way. For Mrs C and me, her “I Hate Men” was a little over-controlled. She really didn’t hate men as much as Nichola McAuliffe. But she makes a good shrew and is a great singer and I think definitely gave the best performance of the night.

Adam Garcia Alex Bourne plays Fred/Petruchio, and he’s very good throughout. He portrayed the arrogance of both characters very well, and also his discomfort and wheedling around Lilli when he realises the flowers have gone to the wrong actress is very funny. However, being briefly odious, he’s no Howard Keel. He has some great numbers to deliver, and I was particularly looking forward to “Where is the life that late I led” with its mixture of humour and pathos; a song that must be a complete thrill for a confident performer to smash it (in the common parlance). He really played it for laughs – which he certainly got – but musically I felt it was a slight let down.

Kevin Brewis For me, the best two set pieces came as a surprise – the two TDH numbers. I was very impressed with the whole performance of Tom Dick or Harry, which got the absolute best out of Holly Dale Spencer as nightclub singer Lois, and supported by Adam Garcia as Bill/Lucentio, Kevin Brewis as Hortensio and Samuel Holmes as Gremio. It had great lightness of touch, entertaining choreography and was thoroughly spirit-lifting. The other officially fabulous number – even more so in fact – was the second act opener Too Darn Hot, fronted by Jason Pennycooke as Fred’s dresser Paul; a terrifically well danced routine, full of life and humour, cheekiness and joie de vivre. This is the second time we’ve seen Mr Pennycooke, and I can tell you he is one talented chap.

Jason Pennycooke As Lois/Bianca, Holly Dale Spencer certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “wide-eyed”, with, for me, her portrayal occasionally teetering on the edge of credibility. There have been some criticisms of her performance of “Always True To You In My Fashion” – a wonderful song – and I have to say I too found it disappointing. Not because she performed it badly – not at all, in many ways it was a remarkably skilful performance; but one that completely misrepresented the essential meaning of the song and its insight into Lois’ character. IMHO, this funny song should make you think that she is indeed, primarily, always true to Bill; but she might be gently naughty with someone else if it will get her a Paris Hat. This sassy Lois cavorts with the raunchiest of moves to a sleazy arrangement so that you feel all she is lacking is the pole to dance around. I’m guessing this is Trevor Nunn and Stephen Mears’ interpretation of the role, and, personally, I thought it was wrong. And yes, with apologies for my odiousness, I did think fondly of Ann Miller.

David Burt and Clive Rowe David Burt and Clive Rowe were an excellent couple of gangsters, ominously muscling in on Katharine on stage to prevent her from making a bolt for the wings, and did a great job of being over the top whilst strangely keeping it real too. The audience loved their Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which was simply staged and brought out Cole Porter’s wordplay with great clarity. I always forget that in the stage show the great “From This Moment On” is not sung by Lois and her suitors, but by Lilli and her General beau. Whilst Ms Waddingham and Mark Heenehan as the General gave a very good performance, I think the number is much better “Hollywooded” up as it is in the film. But then, the stage presentation of Too Darn Hot is probably better than the film. You pay your money, you etc, etc. The minor roles are all played with huge energy and pizzazz by a very likeable company.

Mark Heenehan The audience adored it. Many people were up on their feet at the end, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen before with the rather polite and – let’s be honest – elderly Chichester crowd. It is a very entertaining production and certainly worth seeing, with some brilliant moments and outstanding routines, which do well to make up for the lapses. I think it will enjoy a lot of success at the Old Vic.

Chichester CathedralP.S. After a comfortable night in the central, cheap but a bit Spartan Travelodge, we embarked on our usual quest to find a decent gluten-free breakfast that Mrs C would be able to enjoy. Fortunately for us, the Wetherspoons was so incredibly busy that we would have run out of car park time before we’d get served. Instead we found a little place called Spires on Crane Street. Essentially an old fashioned bakery and tea rooms, with tables outside in the welcoming sunshine. We plonked ourselves down and I went to order. It's gluten-free!A traditional English breakfast for me; then I explained to the nice lady behind the counter that one of the meals had to be gluten-free. She surprised me by suggesting gluten-free toast and gluten-free homemade bubble and squeak, along with the usual baked beans, tomato, bacon and egg. My breakfast was super; and Mrs C was in her element with a decent cooked breakfast that knocked her socks off. Well done Spires!