Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 19th October, 2021
Based on the 1988 film by self-proclaimed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this exuberant musical is doing the rounds again. Admittedly, the source material is Waters’s most mainstream movie, but writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan retain much of the flavour of the original, especially the outlandish cast of characters. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the show now but each time I’m struck by how brilliant it all is.
It’s 1962 and teenager Tracy Turnblad, whose heart is even bigger than her dress size, auditions to be on the local hip TV show. She witnesses the injustice of segregation in her hometown of Baltimore and unlike most people, goes all out to do something about it. Making her professional debut in the role is Katie Brace and she’s absolutely phenomenal. An irresistible stage presence, Brace brims with talent and humanity. Tracy is the closest John Waters gets to a Disney heroine.
Continuing the tradition of casting a man in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna (in honour of Divine who originated the character) we are treated to the comedic stylings of Alex Bourne, a big fella whose Edna is full of sass and vulnerability. The show is not only about the fight for civil rights. With the Turnblad girls, it has a lot to say about self-acceptance and body positivity. Bourne is marvellous and he’s partnered with Norman Pace as Tracy’s dad Wilbur. Pace’s comic business befits joke-shop proprietor Wilbur. His duet with Edna brings the house down.
The emotional core of the show belongs to Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle. The song I Know Where I’ve Been is a searing civil rights anthem, lifting the show beyond its comedic shenanigans. It’s a blistering moment in a score that is bursting with great songs, from the opening number to the rousing, joyous finale, You Can’t Stop The Beat. Marc Shaiman’s melodies are infectious, and his lyrics (co-written with Scott Whittman) are witty and knowing. Excellent as the villains of the piece are Rebecca Thornhill as the bigoted Velma Von Tussle and Jessica Croll as her shrill daughter, Amber.
Making strong impressions among a hugely talented cast are Charlotte St Croix as Little Ines, Akeem Ellis-Hyman as the sinuous Seaweed, Richard Meek as the cheesy TV host Corny Collins, and Rebecca Jayne-Davis as Tracy’s eccentric best friend Penny Pingleton. Ross Clifton’s Link Larkin, Tracy’s love interest, is suitably swoonsome, and there is strong support from Paul Hutton and Ceris Hine as a range of authority figures (teachers, prison guards etc). But truly, the entire cast is magnificent, in great voice and expending vast amounts of energy executing Drew McOnie’s period-inspired choreography.
Of all the musicals currently doing the rounds, this is the one to see. It’s a perfect show, funny and relevant, with an important message about inclusivity that it delivers with wit and style.
This is powerful, life-affirming stuff and no matter how many times I see it, Hairspray still holds up.