You don’t need me to tell you how damaging Covid restrictions and lockdowns have been to the Arts, gentle reader. A case in point came a couple of weeks ago when the Toronto production of Come From Away decided it wouldn’t reopen after Christmas, thus prematurely ending a record-breaking run of 855 performances. And here in the UK, the West End production of Waitress was permanently closed in March 2020 after 13 successful months at the Adelphi Theatre due to the darned pandy. The UK tour had been scheduled to start in November 2020 but didn’t finally get started until last September. If anything proves that The Show Must Go On, I guess the tour of Waitress is a pretty good example!
I’d never heard of the 2007 film on which the musical is based, but the show’s plot seems pretty much to follow the original story. Jenna is one of three waitresses at Joe’s Diner. Each brings her own individual personality to her job, but Jenna’s particular speciality is baking fantastically delicious and inventive pies. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage and longs to break free; and when she discovers there’s a big cash prize for a pie-baking contest, she sees that as a way of getting out of Earl’s clutches and back into freedom. However, she unexpectedly falls pregnant; and on meeting her new obstetrician, Dr Pomatter, they both realise there is an attraction. Do they have an affair? Will she leave her rotten husband? Does she win the pie-baking contest? You’ll have to see the show to find out!
Or alternatively, read on, as there are a lot of spoilers here! Scott Pask’s design beautifully recreates one of those timeless American Diners, all sass and over-eating, and any minute you expect Ritchie Cunningham to walk through the doors accompanied by Potsie and Ralph Malph. You sense this is not only the world of Happy Days, but also Grease, Footloose, or Hairspray, or any place where an ordinary kid can think big and make it to The American Dream. And what could be more wholesome than sweet homemade pies, crammed full of sugar, cream and all those delicious things we know we shouldn’t eat? OK, as she’s been told many times, Jenna may be no Sara Lee, but she sure does know how to create sweet comfort food. As wholesome as apple pie, just like Grandma used to make.
But it isn’t. That’s the façade. Sure, there are homemade pies, but there’s also domestic abuse, coercive control, medical malpractice and multiple adulteries. And for Waitress to tell its story to its fullest effect, this juxtaposition of sweet homeliness versus grim reality needs to be brought into the sharpest possible focus. And whilst there are telling moments, primarily in the scenes where husband Earl abuses Jenna, both physically and financially, for the most part the bittersweetness is blurred and sacrificed on the altar of musical comedy.
Take, for example, the role of Dr Pomatter. His character is presented as a tentative, inept, neurotic clown; medically he knows his stuff, but when it comes to personal contact he’s almost irresistibly childlike, and when Jenna plants a whopper of a kiss on his chops, he doesn’t say what about your husband and what about my wife and what about medical ethics, he just responds in that time-honoured tradition of thinking with his d*ck. And that always leads to trouble. Interestingly, almost the first thing that Jenna says to him is that she’s not happy being pregnant and she’d prefer not to be. Pomatter offers to refer her to someone who will perform a termination. Oh no, she says, semi-affronted, I’m going to have the baby, affirming traditional American Christian apple pie family values. But what’s key here is that Pomatter himself is not prepared to perform an abortion, but he is perfectly happy carry on an affair with one of his married patients. Curious morality where you can pick and choose at will.
Jenna is not the only character in an unfulfilled marriage. Her married colleague Becky ends up having an affair with married Diner manager Cal (because of his strong hands, apparently). As we’ve seen, Pomatter gets tempted elsewhere, and when we meet his charming and helpful wife who helps deliver Jenna’s baby, he seems even more of a scoundrel than before. In another juxtaposition – and this one much more successful – we see the partnering up of third waitress Dawn with nerdy geek Ogie, and they are a perfect match, with their complementary eccentricities and outlandish interests. Ogie’s quirky song Never Ever Getting Rid of Me is the only example in the show where the whole true musical comedy genre actually works.
Otherwise, the musical content is functional if a little bland. Ellen Campbell’s band takes a back seat tucked in a far corner of the stage in more ways than one, in that although they are featured as part of the diner’s seating capacity, they never really make their presence felt. However, the big number, She Used to be Mine, is a stand-out moment where Jenna reflects on the disappointment of her life and is the emotional turning point for her finally to take responsibility for her future.
The production sports some great performances. I’m always excited to see Sandra Marvin, one of my favourite performers, and here she’s perfect as the larger-than-life Becky, with her infectious sarcastic laugh and extraordinary ability to inject life into any song. She’s matched with a delightfully kookie performance by Evelyn Hoskins as the offbeat Dawn, tentatively but creatively picking her way through the world of online dating, her wide-eyed amazement and thrill at the tiniest task (like filling up the mustard and ketchup bottles) coming over as a total joy.
I really enjoyed George Crawford as over-enthusiastic weirdo Ogie, ruthless in his determination to secure Dawn for himself, despite her initial horror at the prospect. No one pulls the wool over the eyes of Scarlet Gabriel’s Nurse Norma, and she very nicely conveys the character’s growing contempt for Pomatter’s indiscretions. And there’s a superb performance from Tamlyn Henderson as the abusive Earl; neither pantomime villain nor overtly vicious, but subtly undermining and a very credibly self-centred louse. Keeping all his wife’s earnings to waste in the bar without the slightest guilt, wheedling selfish affection out of her with a promise that she’ll love him more than she will the baby, whilst still congratulating himself on the prospect of being a father – the legend lives on, he tells himself, with misplaced arrogance. It’s all about him, and Mr Henderson conveys that perfectly.
The first night in Northampton was pivotal in many ways; not only was it the local press night, but it marked the new casting of Chelsea Halfpenny as Jenna, instead of Lucie Jones who had played it in the West End and on tour and is now going to perform in Wicked. But Ms Halfpenny didn’t play the role on the first night; instead, Jenna was played by ensemble performer Aimée Fisher, who has an excellent voice and gave a very strong and likeable performance. Busted’s Matt Jay-Willis plays Dr Pomatter with a convincing blend of fumbling fool and medical expert, but with the addition of chancing his arm to keep his secret affair alive. It’s an odd characterisation and I could never quite decide whether we were meant to find him lovable or despicable. Both, probably.
There were a couple of moments that put me in mind of Avenue Q at its most comical excesses; Dawn and Ogi romping away to Civil War sex, and Pomatter indulging in what can only be described as cake cunnilingus. But somehow the production doesn’t quite balance the frothy light musical comedy element with the more disturbing dark content. I think this is one of those shows that you either get or you don’t get – and on the whole we didn’t get it. As a scrummy delicious fruity pie, it was nice enough, but it didn’t leave me wanting more. I’ve heard from more than one source that this a show that’s primarily targeted at women, and indeed, famously the creative team is exclusively female, so maybe I’m not the target demographic. I also know that many people see this show several times, so it must be doing something right for somebody! The tour continues all the way through to August.