Book: Jessie Nelson
Music & Lyrics: Sara Bareillis
Director: Diane Paulus
After opening in Wimbledon, the first step on the mammoth year-long tour of the UK and Ireland of Waitress, is The Grand Theatre in Leeds. The production, forced to close in London’s West End in March 2020, has retained some of its London cast as it travels the country on an enormous thirty-seven theatre tour with more venues still to be announced.
Winning much acclaim on Broadway, and noted for its all-female creative team, Waitress is a show with female empowerment at its core. Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name, the plot is focussed around Jenna (Lucie Jones) – a waitress (and pie maker extraordinaire) working in a diner in the south of America. Trapped in an abusive marriage we soon learn that she is pregnant and longs for a way out; an exit strategy from a life that she has somehow blindly fallen into. Things get even more messy for Jenna when an inappropriate relationship and love affair blossoms between her and her newly appointed gynaecologist Dr. Pomatter (Matt Jay-Willis). There are no surprises in the plot but the show is crafted with such remarkable skill and care it is very easy to be swept along with its straightforward narrative.
Its winning recipe is that the creative team allows us to empathise with all the characters. Save for Jenna’s husband Earl (Tamlyn Henderson), who almost assumes the form of the archetypal pantomime baddie, we develop enormous fondness for the people in Jesse’s life. Making up the trio of diner waitresses the headstrong Becky (Sandra Marvin) and kooky Dawn (Evie Hoskins) have wonderful comic chemistry. Grumpy chef Cal’s (Christopher D Hunt) bark is much worse than his bite and despite Dr. Pomatter’s infidelity we glimpse a sense of a man struggling with the dilemma of falling in love inappropriately rather than cheating on his wife. There are some very funny performances from George Crawford as Ogie (Dawn’s equally nerdy love interest) and Scarlet Gabriel as Nurse Norma (the seemingly omnipresent doctor’s assistant). Even the band swing in and out of the performance as they occasionally lay down their instruments and become supernumeraries as extra customers in diner scenes. The result is a show that slides along with seeming great ease.
Our heroine and star of the show, with growing baby bump like a rising pie in the oven, needs a performer with huge talent. Lucie Jones, who took on the role in the West End shortly before lockdown, is superb. Jesse’s journey requires an actress that must allow an audience into her fear and vulnerability faced with such a beast of a husband. At the same time, Jones lets us see her determination and resolution when she decides she needs to leave the relationship – culminating in a spontaneous cheer from the audience when Earl is finally kicked out of her life. The role also requires a singer with enormous vocal range and control. As Jones finished She Used to be Mine as Jenna laments on the culmination of her life so far towards the end of the this particular performance, the prolonged applause from the audience was an appreciative and well-deserved recognition of what talent they had witnessed onstage.
Waitress is a story about dreaming up a new and better life. The relationship between Jesse and Earl at times feels a little disingenuous and their scenes possibly overwritten as it seems that Jesse would have left the brutish husband long ago. But, like making a pie, Jesse learns to improvise with ingredients and see where it might lead. It is unashamedly sweet and saccharine and, for the main, this is enough to carry us along on a sugar rush wave.
If you like a sprinkling of extra sweet on your cherry pie this is a wonderful show with some excellent talent on display.
Runs until 18th September 2021