CentralDramaMusicalReview

Hairspray – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Reviewer: Danielle Corr

Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Music: Marc Shaiman.

Lyrics: Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman

Director: Paul Kerryson

The beat is back in Northampton town! Welcome to Baltimore, 1962. Teenager Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart dreams of dancing on the Corny Collins Show. Even social prejudice and high school bullies can’t bring this bopper down and after earning her place as one of the shows Nicest Kids in Town, she uses her newfound celebrity to tackle racial segregation and fight for equality. All while shaking and shimmying.

Based on the 1988 film by John Walters, Hairspray has been delighting theatre audiences for nearly 20 years and returns to Northampton by popular demand. The show opens as it means to go on: full of colour, optimism, determination and a full-bodied beat that dares you to get up and boogie.

Katie Brace’s performance as Tracy Turnblad is an absolute triumph. She positively radiates charisma and her command of the stage is masterful. It is no mean feat to lead a cast of such talent, but she does it with aplomb. She is perfectly paired with Rebecca Jayne-Davies, whose portrayal of Penny Pingleton is a masterclass in comic timing.

Bringing a refreshingly tender tone, Alex Bourne takes on the part of Edna Turnblad. He glows with maternal warmth and only utilises the full force of his magnificent stage presence at key moments, never overshadowing anyone, and makes this iconic role completely his own. His Music Hall style duet (You’re) Timeless to Me with devoted husband Wilbur, played with tremendous heart by comedian Norman Pace, is glorious.

One character that would benefit from more stage time is Motormouth Maybelle, played by vocal powerhouse Brenda Edwards. A stunning mix of vocal finesse and raw emotion, her gospel showstopper I Know Where I’ve Been raises the roof and deservedly receives the largest cheer of the night.

On this occasion, the role of high-school heartthrob Link Larkin was performed by Joshua Pearson. He takes a while to warm up and although his performance sparks into life when interacting with Tracy, he would benefit from raising his energy levels to match the rest of the cast, especially that of the effortlessly charismatic Reece Richards as Seaweed.

Richard Meek gives a polished performance as Corny Collins, contrasting his “on screen” persona whose plastered on smile never quite reaches his eyes, with that of a genuine and progressive man. Watching him spar with Rebecca Thornhill as the show’s bigoted producer, Velma Von Tussle, is a real treat. Thornhill and Jessica Croll as her daughter Amber expertly manage to create characters that are detestable but without them becoming pantomime villains.

Marc Shaiman’s infectious score, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman is complemented by Drew McOnie’s slick choreography and, combined with Paul Kerryson’s direction, they bring the spacious set to life and drive the narrative forward. Just like the song, Hairspray is Big, Blonde (brunette, black, red, purple etc) And Beautiful. It manages to balance the depth of its serious themes with pure unadulterated joy.

Body positivity, the fight for equality, racial integration, the power of protests and the challenging of the conventional. Thirty years later, Hairspray is just as relevant today as it was then.

“You have to think big to be big” and Hairspray is one of the biggest, and best musicals around.

Runs until 5 February 2022 and touring

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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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