Hairspray – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Lyrics: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

Director: Paul Kerryson

The flasher down the street, rats around your feet and the friendly bum on his barstool – you’d be forgiven for mistaking the bright and shimmering era of the sixties in Baltimore for the streets of Auld Reekie Toun.Hairspraymakes a return to Edinburgh, with bigger hair, bolder ballads and as welcoming an audience as ever for their opening night.

For a few hours, attempt to distance yourself from reality and be welcomed into the heaving bosom of Baltimore, 1962 – where teen Tracy Turnblad dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show. A big dream, for a big girl, with even bigger hair refuses to allow social anxieties and prejudices to bring this bopper down after securing a spot on the show as one of theNicest Kids in Town. But with fame comes responsibility, and Tracy is a rare sort – who, unlike antagonistic bully Amber, uses this celebrity to tackle racial segregation and fight for equality. And if she can do all that in a heavy hairpiece while dancing and skipping detentions – there’s no reason a man in a suit can’t do the same.

Good morning, Baltimore indeed! The utterly vivacious and triumph Katie Bruce breaths such vitality into Tracy Turnblad – radiating charm and effortless stage presence, with a balanced poise for both uplifting comedic timing and a more downtrodden, sullen melancholy where required. But it’s difficult to stay down, especially when matched with best friends Penny Pingleton, cast perfectly by Rebecca Jayne-Davies, lifting the less central (though important) role into one of the show’s standout features of vocals, humour, and a rather impressive physicality to match that of Reece Richards tight choreographed Seaweed.

Race is, and will always be, the pivotal and centralised core ofHairspray. Though it takes forays into American class systems, communist propaganda and of course a healthy dose of body positivity, the profiling of black characters and segregation sits at the foundations of John Walters 1988 classic starring Divine and Ruth Brown, coming to a more visible and less subtle crux with Mark O’Donnell, Thomas Meehan, and March Shaiman’s 2002 musical adaptation.

A predominantly white audience, and this writer for that matter, will never fully comprehend the annexation, cruelty, and resistance characters like Motormouth Mabelle denote for communities still maintaining a fight for their rights and visibility long after the rest of us would have given in. But for one moment:I Know Where I’ve Beeninstils in the guts of audiences a sliver of that emotional integrity. Bernadette Bangura is a titan on stage.

From one legend to another – or rather two, Alex Bourne and Norman Pace as Tracy’s parents Enda and Wilbur are a dangerous pairing. Particularly Pace. Mirthful, effortlessly funny and a pleasure to watch, when left alone for their touching rendition ofYou’re Timeless to Me– there’s a producer somewhere tearing what’s left of their hair out. Adlibbing, pushing the physicality of their performances and just having one hell of a good time, Bourne and Pace are the absolute heart of the show. Without question, a highlight and precisely the energy audiences require right now.

And though Marc Shaiman’s exceptionally infectious score compliments Scott Wittman’s additional lyrics, director Paul Kerryson has a tough job ensuring the pacing follows. Largely exceptional, especially in the Act Two opening and closingof Big Doll HouseandYou Can’t Stop the Beat, there’s an uphill struggle for Ross Clifton’s Link Larkin who just takes a little too much time to generate the required energy and charm of the heartthrob.

Hairsprayhas always been a significant crowd-pleaser, starting all those years ago in the same way it intends to go on: full of vibrance, optimism, determination, and a full-bodied beat that pushes you to get up and jive. And mercifully, it still resonates with audiences with more than its infectious soundtrack and lyrics – the intention is there, the tears roll as Motormouth Maybelle dares the audience not to stand by her, and the sea of faces happy to watch a leading performer who has a shape like them is a warming moment come the production’s well-deserved standing ovation.

Runs until 19 March 2022 | Image: Mark Singer

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Big, Bold, Boundary-Breaking

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The Reviews Hub - Scotland

The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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