Book: Jessie Nelson
Music and Lyrics: Sara Bareilles
Director: Diane Paulus
This American diner musical stuffed with food metaphors at first seems as cheesy, hammy and corny as they come. And while there is no denying a West End audience expects, even hankers, for a bit of cheese, Waitress delivers much more.
Lucie Jones reprises her role as Jenna, a waitress and marvel pie baker who longs to escape her abusive husband. She is a strong, sweet and beautiful heroine, but one who is also flawed, as are most of the characters. Their authenticity is part of the narrative’s success. Co-workers Becky (Sandra Marvin) and Dawn (Evelyn Hoskins) provide support and advice, but they do not always lead by example. Jones portrays the power of Jenna’s ordinariness; she is hesitant and self-deprecating, with a goofy giggle but a staggering voice. Her performance of the ballad She Used to Be Mine is exceptional. The other voices are praise-worthy although less awe-inspiring, but Sara Bereilles’s song list is varied, setting a sprightly pace, and delivering meaningful lyrics.
Waitress goes from work banality to sinister domesticity, to sexual comedy, female empowerment and back again. Scott Pask’s comprehensive set design facilitates the smooth transitions. As does Diane Paulus’s direction; each scene is exciting, but never overdone. The abundance of condiments, wafts of flour and stacks of pies are utilised in every scene. From the heartfelt ballads to the outrageous steamy affairs, Waitress stays charmingly and hilariously on theme.
Relationships make this musical. Some are bad, others lovely. Each one is different, complex even (as much as is possible within the boundaries of a stage show.) Jenna’s affair with her gynaecologist Dr. Pomatter (Matt Willis) is touching but no fairy tale. It serves a purpose in her development as a woman. It reminds her that she is desired and that she is alive. She needs no more than that. However, there are other elements which lack such modernity, like Ogie’s (George Crawford) stalkerish advance of Dawn. The trials of dating and the idea of a woman slowly warming to a love-interest could have been portrayed less forcefully. The lyrics alone are problematic: “I’m not going, if it seems like I did I’m probably waiting outside […] You can try, oh, but I love you means you’re never, ever, ever getting rid of me.” Since when is a man harassing you at your workplace romantic?
It is, however, a joy to see such importance placed on female friendship. Jones, Marvin and Hoskins’s trio drives home the value of emotional and practical support for women, whatever their situation. Waitress too asks larger questions about life – how happy is happy enough? A musical that can provoke so, and also make ketchup, mustard and mud pie amorous is bound to keep its audience fulfilled.
Runs until 11 September 2021 and then tours