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 – Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory, 7th October 2012

Charley's Aunt 1977Charley’s Aunt – from Brazil – where the nuts come from; the phrase is the stuff of legend. I saw sure I had seen a production of this in my youth at the Young Vic but my memories of it were hazy. I did a bit of online research and it revealed nothing. But the irritation of not being able to bring it to mind started to get too much…So there was nothing to be done for it, I would have to search my theatre programme collection. And there it was – a production at the Young Vic that I attended on January 3rd 1977 when I was still sweet 16. It was directed by Denise Coffey and had a great cast – Lord Fancourt Babberley was played by Nicky Henson; Jack and Charley were Ian Gelder and Simon Chandler; Amy Spettigue was Natasha Pyne (from Father Dear Father) and Ela Delahay was a young Miss Janine Duvitski. I remember thinking at the time that, for such an old play, it was still very funny.

Charley's Aunt 2012That would have been its 85th anniversary production – if you care to look at it in those terms. The current production at the Menier celebrates its 120th anniversary, and it is still as fresh as the proverbial daisy, or indeed Sir Francis Chesney’s wandering carnation. You get an instant high as you enter the auditorium from looking at the beautiful, versatile and (by Menier standards) extremely large set designed by Paul Farnsworth. We loved the gargoyle effects and the dreaming spires, the way the outside courtyard transformed into Spettigue’s house, and how by removing or reversing panels you can create what was outside, inside, and vice versa. And from our vantage point of Row A, you feel so close and involved in the action. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like imaginary seventh and eighth people attending the Act One lunch as the dining table was almost within arm’s reach of us.

Mathew HorneI did however want to dash across the stage to where Jack was writing his opening scene letter and replace the book he was leaning on with something genuinely from the period. They’re using a 1970s red leatherette Readers Digest book godammit! Why not use an old anonymous brown leather bound tome, you could get one off Ebay for £3.50. Tsk!

Jane AsherAnyway I think that’s my only criticism of the play dealt with. Apart from that, it’s a dream. The packed audience laughed all the way through – sometimes hysterically; sometimes having to fight the urge to exclaim back at the cast at the onstage larks. There’s a moment when Lord Fancourt Babberley is hiding behind the piano, and when he is discovered, there is an almighty thud suggesting he’d walloped his head against the back of the piano. Not only was I laughing my own head off, I ended up cradling it in sympathetic agony too. There were pained groans from all over the audience. I must say that the moments of comic business littered throughout the show are all done marvellously.

Charlie Clemmow“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive”, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to warn, and this play could almost be the dictionary definition of that old saying. Jack and Charley want to progress their chances with their sweethearts Kitty and Amy, but propriety requires a chaperone. Fortunately Charley’s rich aunt Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez is expected from Brazil (where the nuts come from) so the girls agree to risk the naughtiness of proximity to the boys provided she is there to stand guard. Unfortunately though, her arrival is delayed; so Jack and Charley convince their fellow undergraduate toff Fancourt Babberley to disguise himself as the aunt so that their separate loves may be professed to the girls before the latter go to Scotland, for apparently what was going to be a helluva long time. Naturally things get out of hand; the aunt’s finances attract amorous advances; the real aunt turns up; farce ensues.

Dominic Tighe It was first produced in 1892, the same year as Lady Windermere’s Fan, and almost exactly in the middle of Georges Feydeau’s career as farceur magnifique d’Europe, which is definitely reflected in its content. However, it also has quite a Shakespearean structure to it. Cross-dressing, old fools making an idiot of themselves over love, a humorous servant and with four engagements to be married before the curtain comes down. No wonder people were falling over themselves to procure tickets for it back in 1892. This production is, appropriately, absolutely faithful to Brandon Thomas’ original text and I really liked the fact that they have gone for two intervals. I know it’s not trendy to do so, and that frequently directors look for a cliffhanger moment in the middle of act two just to chop it in half for simplicity’s sake; but three-acters were written for a reason, and it gives audience and cast alike a chance to pace themselves.

Benjamin AskewWhen it was first announced that this production would star Mathew Horne and Jane Asher my immediate thought was that it was perfect casting; and so it is. Mathew Horne is brilliant at taking those “put-upon” roles – whether it be Gavin, or Nan Taylor’s grandson – where the source of the comedy is elsewhere but requires the visible suffering of an innocent everyman figure. Nan Taylor reminds me of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle so I’ve always identified with Mr Horne in those scenes. Mind you, Lord Fancourt Babberley isn’t that innocent; he does try to nick the four bottles of champagne after all. Cue a perfect example of Mr Horne’s acting eyes; when after some undergraduate horseplay he lands chest down on the bag containing the bottles and you hear that agonising clink of glass on glass, with one glimpse of his anxious expression, the audience groaned and shared his alarm. He has an extraordinary ability to convey that “I don’t believe what just happened/I just heard/they just did” emotion with a fractional eye movement.

Leah Whitaker Brandon Thomas is very clear in his stage instructions that “Fanny Babbs” should be in no way effeminate as Donna Lucia; and Mathew Horne catches that ridiculous set-up perfectly. He has to veer towards the pug-ugly and behave like a bloke so that the attractions of Spettigue are even more absurd; and a lot of the comedy comes from the juxtaposition of Donna Lucia’s presumed gentility and FB’s chummy Etonian boisterousness. That all works really well in this production. His genuine distress at being put in this embarrassing position is real and funny; and when he dissolves into a puddle of love at the prospect of Miss Delahay, I actually found it quite moving. It’s a great performance, full of physical comedy, technically spot-on and not a word garbled or hard to hear, so hurrah for that.

Ellie Beaven Of course it’s great to see Jane Asher on stage, giving a wonderfully balanced performance based on the refined but warm character of the real Donna Lucia and her comic teasing of the fake Donna Lucia. She has super stage presence, which lends itself perfectly to the dignity of her character, but also with a very light human and comic touch. Her little utterance of excitement after she has re-established contact with Chesney Senior is a moment of delight. She also made a very good double act with Charlie Clemmow, as Ela, both of them giggling in a co-conspiratorial way at the depths to which the young men are digging holes for themselves. I liked Miss Clemmow’s performance a great deal, as she brought life and depth to the character of Ela, rather than her just being the “third girl”, which it easily can be.

Steven Pacey All the actors are splendid though, and the show’s got a great ensemble feel. Dominic Tighe (excellent in Barefoot in the Park earlier this year at Oxford) as Jack is thrusting and imperious as a bossy toffee-nosed undergrad, who goes all matey with his dad when there’s money in the offing; and he too has a very strong stage presence and a crystal clear voice. 1892 is a long time ago; if I’d addressed my scout like that in 1978 I’d have been rusticated. Benjamin Askew’s Charley is a delightful duffer with something of a toned-down version of Harry Enfield’s Tim-Nice-But-Dim to him; he also makes a very good puppy dog when in Amy Spettigue’s presence. As their wannabe girlfriends, both Leah Whitaker and Ellie Beaven are perfectly matched to their chaps; Miss Whitaker credibly providing the bolder approach to proposals, and giving a perfect visual response to being told she’s a brick.

Norman PaceSteven Pacey makes a strong impact as Sir Francis, full of vitality and spark, absolutely the old Indian Colonel and really relishing his lines. “That’s not the way an old soldier makes love” brought the house down. Norman Pace’s Spettigue is a great creation; bombastic at first – Mathew Horne’s giving him short shrift for his rudeness is hilarious – and then later a picture of ridiculous besottedness as he admires and adores every move the fake aunt makes. Fancourt Babberley describes him as looking like a boiled owl and somehow that’s precisely how Mr Pace manages to make himself look. Brilliant stuff. Finally Charles Kay – whose performances I have enjoyed dozens of times over the years – is excellent as Brassett the scout, doing his best to answer the call of His Master’s Voice when necessary but pompously facing down effrontery when required.

Charles Kay It’s a wonderful production, one of the best things we’ve seen at the Menier, and we laughed about it on the train home, which is always a good sign. It surely deserves a transfer after its spell at the Menier. Take the opportunity to catch a great cast do justice to a classic comedy!