Hairspray – Celia Mackay Theatre, Kilworth House, North Kilworth

Reviewer: James Garrington

Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Music: Marc Shaiman

Lyrics: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

Director: Lee Proud

There’s something special about outdoor theatre – even on a damp and slightly chilly July evening. Not that the rain matters much if you’re visiting the recently renamed Celia Mackay Theatre at Kilworth House, because both the auditorium and stage are covered by large sails, protecting both cast and audience from the elements so you find the sort of sets and technical facilities that you’d normally expect to see indoors, with the atmosphere that only an outdoor venue can provide. What better place for the first outdoor staging of Hairspray than this jewel of a theatre, with its expansive stage which still manages to maintain an intimate feel?

It’s not only the venue that’s a jewel – this is a superb production of the well-loved musical too. Designer Paul Farnsworth’s set and costumes are bright and colourful, and Lee Proud’s choreography is energetic as the orchestra cracks through the songs that everyone knows and loves. From the opening Good Morning Baltimore through to the closing You Can’t Stop the Beat the energy and exuberance are non-stop and the joy is infectious.

Centre stage is Charlotte-Hannah Jones as Tracy Turnblad. Jones gives a performance as big as Tracy’s hairdo, scarcely leaving the stage for the duration of the show as she invests herself totally into the role and delivers her numbers with skill, leading a cast which has been chosen to perfection. Love interest Link Larkin (Alex Lodge), torn between his own perceived interest and doing what’s right, is also in good voice with his It Takes Two. Ayesha Maynard delivers a haunting I Know Where I’ve Been as Motormouth Maybelle with a rubber-limbed Nay-Nay as Tracy’s friend Seaweed, oozing his way through his dance moves.

Jenny Gaynor is a suitably nasty and bigoted Velma Von Tussle, with Holly Willock giving us a nicely spoilt daughter Amber. A special mention is deserved too for Daniel Page and Catherine Morris, each multi playing multiple roles as the various authority figures with Page’s memorable Harriman F. Spritzer and Morris bringing a new level of humour to the Gym Teacher and Prison Matron.

Threatening to stop the show, as is often the case, are Tracy’s parents Wilbur and, especially, Edna. Edna is a massive character, both figuratively and literally, and Michael J Batchelor plays it as though born to the role, finding comedy in dialogue that may not have been in the original script but is entirely in keeping. Batchelor is a highly experienced panto Dame and it shows. He’s not afraid to break the fourth wall and his duet You’re Timeless to Me with Steven Serlin (Wilbur) is one of the undoubted high points of the production.

Despite its light-hearted fluff Hairspray is a show with a deeper message. It has at its heart a story of acceptance and equality, whether it’s having a plus-sized dancer on a TV show or racial integration. It might have been set over sixty years ago, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, but few can argue that it maintains its relevance today as racial tensions are ever present in many parts of the world. That’s unlikely to be in many people’s minds as they leave the theatre though – more likely they will be blown away by the sheer exuberance of the show, and the non-stop energy of the cast as they deliver a production that’s full of fun.

Theatre owner and producer Celia Mackay has a vision, to produce West End quality theatre in the heart of Leicestershire – and judging by this production, she has succeeded beyond any doubt.

It’s a total joy that will bring a smile to your face.

Runs until 6 August 2023

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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