MusicalReviewSouth East

Hairspray – Theatre Royal, Norwich

Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman
Director: Paul Kerryson
Musical Director: Liam Dunachie
Reviewer: Glen Pearce


Big Hair, big girls and big fun – Hairspray is sheer in-yer-face fun, perhaps the natural successor to teen musical Grease or even Glee. Unlike Glee, however, this isn’t a teenage group of perfect looks and hair (despite ozone layer destroying amounts of hairspray). No, this is a teenage Baltimore that threatens to rock American 1960s sensibilities to the core. Not only is the new rock ‘n’ roll bringing suggestive dance moves into American homes, the dancers are black or misfits that don’t fit the Miss Prom Queen Americana image.

The current teen rage in 1962 Baltimore is the Corny Collins Show, fronted by so many perfect sparkling white smiles that it might as well be sponsored by Colgate instead of Ultra Clutch Hairspray. While Tracey Turnblad may have dreams of appearing on the show (not at all influenced by her infatuation for heart-throb star Link Larkin), her ample frame, outspoken views supporting racial integration and a supersized laundress worker mother mean she’ll never be the choice of former prom queen and show producer Velma ‘Miss Baltimore Crabs’ von Tussle.

For a feelgood comedy musical, though, Hairspray offers a surprisingly strong social commentary, the Black/White segregation that was still very much in force in 1960s America. While the TV station may show black dancers, it’s strictly on a once-a-month, quota ticking ‘Negro Day’ basis – segregation that Tracy is determined to overthrow.

As Tracy, Freya Sutton is the emotional heart of the show and Sutton revels in the role, giving a performance as big as her backcombedbouffant. It’s a vocal powerhouse of a performance but one that also allows the vulnerability to shine through. There’s such an infectious energy in Sutton’s performance that it’s impossible not to root for her.

Stepping into the slippers and high heels previously worn by the likes of Devine, Harvey Feinstein and Michael Ball, Matt Rixon’s Edna is perhaps less brash than some of his predecessors but it gives an insight into the heartache underneath that ample (54EE) bosom. Rixon also offers perfect comic timing, interplaying well with Peter Duncan as diminutive husband Wilbur.

Brenda Edwards’ glorious larger-than-life Motormouth Mabelle, though, steals the show with a vocal performance that more than once threatens to bring the roof down. The rousing Big, Blonde And Beautiful Act One closer is a masterclass from Edwards in how to sell a song with total conviction, while the anthemic I Know Where I’ve Been brings a tear to the eye through her power and delivery and makes you want to grab a placard and join in the march for equality.

Elsewhere other performances lack that level of punch. Claire Sweeney’s Velma is somewhat shrill and lacks diction in some numbers while Ashley Gilmour never really shows the charisma needed for a genuine teenage idol. A somewhat muddy sound mix for the opening hour of the show also hampers diction, with exuberance and over-amplification of the onstage band (excellently handled by Musical Director Liam Dunachie) winning over clarity.

Overall, though, it is that exuberance that wins the audience over, the sheer enthusiasm of the cast, the fun of Drew McOnie’s choreography and simple yet effective staging by Paul Kerryson on Paul Moore’s colourful set, make this a show that is hard not to smile at.

It may be the twin performances of Sutton and Edwards that stick long in the memory but you’ll be humming You Can’t Stop The Beat for days afterwards. One suspects big hair will be the must-have look in Norwich for weeks to come!

Runs until 2 April 2016 and continues to tour | Image: Ellie Krutz

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The Reviews Hub - South East

The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. 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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