Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Director: Paul Kerryson
Choreographer: Drew McOnie
Reviewer: Dan English
Big numbers, big hair and even bigger hearts aplenty as the UK Tour of Hairspray makes its stop at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre.
Despite its 60s setting, the Paul Kerryson directed play still has political clout as protagonist Tracy Turnblad fights back against body-shaming and racial segregation in attempts to achieve her dream of dance stardom, messages that still ring true today.
Rebecca Mendoza’s Tracy is the typically sweet and impressionable America teenager, but one with a strong interest in civil rights too. Mendoza’s portrayal of the charmingly innocent protagonist is impressive, successfully conveying her endearing nature with ease, especially during her body-shaming audition setback. Drew McOnie’s choreography throughout is demanding for Tracy’s character, yet this is executed with aplomb by Mendoza. Tracy is supported in her quest for dance stardom and societal unity by her ditzy best friend Penny (Annalise Liard-Bailey). Liard-Bailey’s Penny is wonderfully dim and her struggles to comprehend her situation are well delivered. Her standout moment is during Act One’s Mom, I’m a Big Girl Now; a rare moment where Penny expresses her true feelings.
Love interest Link Larkin (Edward Chitticks) is the leading man of The Corny Collins Show, the programme Tracy is desperate to be on. Larkin’s place is cemented in Tracy’s heart yet his internal conflict between choosing love and Tracy or fame and Amber (Aimee Moore) is well presented. Larkin represents the shifting but conflicted attitudes towards racial integration in 60s America, and this is evident in Chitticks’ performance. Chitticks’ and Mendoza combine well to present their romantic bond throughout the production too.
Edna Turnblad (Matt Rixon) and Wilbur Turnblad (Norman Pace) provide enjoyable interludes and support to Tracy through her journey. It is a coupling that shows a fantastic comic spark between two individuals at ease with delivering witty one-liners and double entendres. The pair put together a fine performance of their character’s duet ‘You’re Timeless To Me in Act Two, and it is a performance so well done that it almost becomes disappointing that we see so little of the two interacting throughout Kerryson’s production.
Velma Von Tussle (Gina Murray) is the villain of the piece, refusing to adapt to the changes in societal attitude, which is something Murray conveys well. Velma is deliberately frustrating to watch and there is a sinister nature to her seductive but amusingly titled ‘Miss Baltimore Crabs’. Like most musical villains, Velma eventually learns her lesson, but the lesson she learns embodies the political message pushed by the performance.
Layton Williams and Brenda Edwards deserve mentions for their performances as Seaweed and Motormouth Maybelle. Williams’ ability to adapt to choreography and present an array of dance skills is breath-taking and he crafts a touching relationship with Liard-Bailey’s Penny. Edwards’ Motormouth is a fierce and empowered personality, tired of persecution and seeking change. Edwards gives a determined performance as well as demonstrating a wonderful vocal range in ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’.
The set and costume design by Takis provides a strong frame to highlight the segregation of the Sixties. Takis’ set relies on a projected backdrop to capture the Civil Rights protests, particularly during Act One’s finale. It is also subtly crafted to demonstrate the two sides to America society at the time, although the stage does feel a little bare at times.
Hairspray is a production caught in a timewarp. It’s fantastically 60s, full of the colour, soul and free-spirit that defines the era. This is a production that finely delivers a political message all too pertinent today.
Runs until 9 September 2017 then tour continues | Image: Darren Bell