ComedyDramaFamilyMusicalReviewSouth West

Hairspray – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Director: Paul Kerryson

Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Music / Lyrics: Marc Shaiman / Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Hairspray is a musical that moves to its own beat. Born rebellious, the musical derived from John Waters’ 1988 film, is a tale of inequality, difference and why we should care.

In 2018, against a background of Presidential tweets and fake news, divisions remain sharply drawn. This revival could not be more timely; in its depiction of racial segregation (implicit and fully-declared), Hairspray isn’t calling us from the Sixties; it’s a projection of where we are now, and what we could be instead.

What Hairspray does, and does rather brilliantly, is to deliver this content neatly wrapped up in a bundle of great songs. The Nicest Kids in Town, You Can’t Stop the Beat, I Know Where I’ve Been; the lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman deliberately shift between teenage preoccupations of love and music, to the deeper conflicts that shape the characters’ lives. Substance wrapped up in surface – it’s a clever idea that makes this musical truly unique. 

Hairspray is a world on the threshold of change. It may be 1962, but racial tension is not only rife, it’s a given. Tracey Turnblad’s eager pursuit of fame, as she moves through racially-divided Baltimore, develops into a battle for equality. In the wrong hands, this could be pure bubblegum; well-meaning but clumsy. With source material from John Waters, waspish humour threads throughout the story and keeps the narrative from tipping over into saccharine.

Hairspray also avoids the hard-sell by laying on the charm. Casting is crucial in this musical. If we don’t see ourselves in the marginalised, the oppressed – the whole thing falls flat.

In this production, the casting is pitch-perfect. The dynamic between Edna and Wilbur Turnblad is particularly good. Matt Rixon (Edna) and Norman Pace (Wilbur) turn You’re Timeless to Me into a bona-fide show stopper. They capture the essence of Hairspray in a single note: if they’re having fun, so are we.

The cast’s performance bounces with energy. The choreography is complex and highly detailed, and really shows off the skill of the supporting cast, including Layton Williams. As Seaweed, Williams transforms his role into leading-man status. Bold, brazen and fabulous – Layton is a name to watch.

There is no weak link in this production. As Velma Von Tussle, Gina Murray blends smoulder with scandal; Little Inez (Marifa James) is the sassy heroine every tween should aspire to be. As Tracey Turnblad, Rebecca Mendoza goes beyond fat girl / funny girl by painting Tracey’s songs with longing, desire and ambition.

When so much of the work is already done for you, the temptation would be to coast through Hairspray, and to be fair, you would still have a pretty good show. But to elevate the story, where the status quo is not only undermined but turned upside down, is always the smartest move.

Hairspray is, for the best and worst reasons, still the contemporary musical that speaks to us. But its genius is that it doesn’t cajole us to be better, it moves us to believe that we can. It’s not only timeless, it’s radical – all the way down to its roots.

Runs until Saturday 20 January | Image: Darren Bell

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. 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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