Tag Archives: Paul Kerryson

Firm Favourite


Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 9th October, 2017


I don’t know how many times I have seen this show but I am always glad of the chance to see it again.  This latest tour does not disappoint in any department – which is what you hope for, of course – but yet again I am struck by the genius of the material.  Based on a film of the same name by the self-appointed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this is more than the story of a determined, chubby girl to get herself dancing on a TV show; it is a microcosm of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and also, for our times, a fable that reminds us that different can be beautiful.  Yes, it’s a feel-good musical, there’s no getting away from that, but the social commentary packs a punch that goes beyond its historical relevance.  Look at the news and see right-wing morons behaving despicably in the USA today and you’ll see that abhorrent (and stupid) attitudes are still prevalent along with institutionalised racism – TV producer and the show’s villain, Velma would no doubt be a Trump supporter.

Making her professional debut, Rebecca Mendoza is superb as the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad, a veritable dynamo full of heart and energy.  Mendoza also brings out Tracy’s inherent sense of humour and her vocal stylings are impeccable.  Similarly, Edward Chitticks makes his Link Larkin more than a shallow Elvis wannabe – although he undoubtedly has all the moves.  Jon Tsouras is both sharp and smooth as TV host Corny Collins.  Brenda Edwards brings the house down as the sassy, brassy Motormouth Maybelle – her anthemic I Know Where I’ve Been gives goosebumps.  Layton Williams makes for a sinuous, sinewy Seaweed – Drew McOnie’s choreography certainly allows him to shine – while Annalise Liard-Bailey’s geeky Penny Pingleton is a pleasure.  Aimee Moore is particularly good as mean girl Amber Von Tussle while Gina Murray is marvellous as her mean-spirited mother.  Monifa James impresses as Little Inez and there is much to enjoy from Graham Macduff and Tracey Penn in a variety of pop-up roles, including the TV sponsor and a crude prison guard.

Inevitably perhaps, the showstoppers are Tracy’s parents, Wilbur and Edna – fellow Dudley boy Norman Pace and Matt Rixon.  Veteran star Pace shows no signs of waning and Rixon is pitch perfect in a role that is much more than a pantomime dame.  Edna’s journey from the ironing board to national television is truly life-affirming, and Rixon makes the most of the humour and the underlying pathos of the part.

The main players are supported by an indefatigable chorus of singing, dancing marvels and a tireless band under the baton of musical director Ben Atkinson.  Paul Kerryson’s direction keeps the fun factor high – you can’t help having a great time.

Marc Shaiman’s score has no filler and the lyrics, co-written with Scott Whittman, remain witty and sophisticated.  Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book retains enough of the Pope of Trash’s acerbic spirit to keep the whole from becoming saccharine sweet.

Everyone is on their feet for the irresistible finale, blown away and exhilarated by the energy and talent exuding from the stage.   Hairspray retains its hold on me and while I’m uplifted by this fine production, I am saddened to realise that in these backward-facing times we need to heed its message just as much as we ever did.


Good morning, Birmingham! Rebecca Mendoza IS Tracy Turnblad

Hair Tonic


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 14th December, 2015


The irrepressibly feel-good musical comes to Brum for the festive season – an alternative to panto but the story has a lot in common with fairy tales.  Our heroine Tracy Turnblad longs to go to the ball (in this case, become a dancer on The Corny Collins TV Show), there’s a wicked witch (racist TV producer Velma) and a handsome Prince Charming (Link Larkin).  Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book captures the essence of the John Waters original film, while composer Mark Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s lyrics are clever, complex and witty.  Shaiman’s tunes are all memorable, drawing on the styles of the era.  It’s 1962 in Baltimore and society is segregated.  Until Tracy Turnblad comes along…

As the ever-optimistic, single-minded idealist, Freya Sutton knocks your socks off.  Her Tracy is an unstoppable force and instantly likeable, as she waves hello to rats, drunkards and flashers on her way to school.  Her mother, Edna (Tony Maudsley) has self-esteem issues – Maudsley is spot on as a gruff-speaking Edna, gradually coming out of her shell and learning to love herself for who she is.  Partnered by a sprightly Peter Duncan as husband Wilbur, the pair stop the show with their duet, You’re Timeless To Me.  Duncan’s Wilbur is a mass of energy himself (much is made of the disparity in size between wife and husband) making the role his own – Tracy must get her vivaciousness and sense of social justice from somewhere.  Duncan’s characterisation shows us exactly where.

Brenda Edwards brings the house down as Motormouth Maybelle with the soulful anthem I Know Where I’ve Been, in the show’s goosebumps moment; while Claire Sweeney’s elegantly vile and villainous Velma is a lot of fun – daughter Amber (Lauren Stroud) is the petulant, immature version.  Monique Young gets laughs as Tracy’s awkward friend Penny.  She embarks on an interracial relationship with dynamic Seaweed (an excellent Dex Lee) bringing the political thrust of the show to a personal level.  Jon Tsouras is cheesily good as TV host Corny Collins and Ashley Gilmour makes an appealing Link.  They are all supported by a superb ensemble of vibrant youngsters – although special mention must go to Adam Price and Tracey Penn who reappear in a range of ‘authority figure’ roles, from school teacher to prison guard.

The energy coming off the stage is infectious, thanks in no small part to the exuberant choreography by Drew McOnie.  Director Paul Kerryson lets the social issues emerge without browbeating us, although when Motormouth sings she prays to her god and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr appears on the TV screen, it’s a little on the nose.  My favourite number, I Can Hear The Bells, is splendidly staged, charting Tracy and Link’s entire relationship even though she has only just met him, in a swirl of teenage naivety and romanticism.

The show’s message about tolerance of others and acceptance of self still rings true.  Hairspray will have you laughing and clapping along but it will also prick your conscience and remind you that the struggle goes on.  You only have to look from Velma to Donald Trump to realise we are still plagued by blondes with ridiculous hairdos spouting hateful and divisive nonsense.

The cast of Hairspray. Credit Ellie Kurttz (1).jpg

Freya Sutton takes centre stage as Tracy (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Let Them Entertain You

Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 13th March, 2012

Paul Kerryson’s revival of the Jule Styne/Arthur Laurents 1959 musical continues the run of superb productions at this remarkable venue. With a strong cast and production values to rival any West End production, this is a powerful show, relentless as its central character.

And what a central character! Ostensibly this is a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrated clothing remover, but the action is dominated by the pushiest of pushy stage mothers, Rose (a barnstorming Caroline O’Connor). Rose is an absolute monster, infantilising her daughters in order to keep their tired Vaudeville act doing the rounds, year after year. The young Baby June (played in the show I saw by nine-year-old Hannah Everest) gives a truly nauseating performance, all squeals, splits and baton twirling. I believe we are intended to view the cutesiness from outside and recognise the awfulness of the act. Performers and director keep this distinction clearly drawn: the difference between when the characters are singing as themselves and when they are ‘performing’ their act.

There is a very effective transition from young to older cast achieved through the simple application of a strobe light. Indeed, apart from using back-projections of period newspaper advertisements, blown up huge as ironic counterpoints to the action, this is a very traditional staging, allowing the strength of the story and the performers to shine.

Caroline O’Connor largely makes the part her own although the ghost of Ethel Merman is never far away from her vowel sounds. The monstrousness of Rose, her ambition fuelled by delusion and driven by a sort of Munchausen’s syndrome is her tragic flaw. When meal ticket Baby June elopes with one of the overgrown chorus boys, everyone thinks that’s the end of the act. But not Rose. She turns to neglected and overlooked daughter Louise (Victoria Hamilton-Barrit) and instantly forms a plan to remake the act with her as the star. Heard in context, classic song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is chilling in its intensity. At the end, Rose storms the stage in a kind of musical breakdown but by the end of the number she has composed herself and is back the same as she always was. It is not like she hasn’t learned anything but she chooses to ignore it and wilfully puts her blinkers back on.

Louise, desperate for affection, attention and keen to please, winds up as a tentative stripper in a burlesque theatre. She subverts her sister’s signature song, “Let Me Entertain You” wringing out the double entendres of Sondheim’s lyrics. She soon takes to stripping like a duck to plucking and becomes rich and famous in no time. Standing up to her mother at last, she shows us how far she has come. Victoria Hamilton-Barrit gives the strongest performance of the lot, from boyish teenager, self-effacing and kind, to the assured and exotic mature woman she becomes, still generous enough in spirit to humour and forgive her overbearing mother.

It’s a dark story, leavened with humour and heart. The supporting players are all very good. The trio of strippers almost steal the show with their number, “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” (which contains the marvellous Stephen Sondheim lyric – If you want to bump it, bump it with a trumpet). The quality of the production never falters. I hope this Gypsy, like other Curve productions before it, will take to the road.