Photo credit: Lizzie Bea as Tracy Turnblad and Jonny Amies as Link Larkin (Photo by Tristram Kenton)

'Hairspray' brings the beat and a big heart back to the West End

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

On a night of jubilation for English football fans, there was ample cause for celebration in the West End, too. Theatre came roaring back with a bright and big-hearted musical, ecstatically received by the London Coliseum audience.

As star Michael Ball pointed out in a post-show speech, we're not there yet: that audience was 1,000 instead of 3,000, with social distancing and capacity caps still in place. It was a smaller band, too, looking lonely in the cavernous pit. All of which exacerbated a mismatch between this genial but modest production and the enormous venue. 

Yet thanks to a phenomenally hard-working ensemble, dynamically delivering Jerry Mitchell's witty, inventive choreography, it did capture the Hairspray spirit — capped by the irresistible final number, "You Can't Stop the Beat," which had everyone up and dancing together. You don't get that with a streamed show in your living room. 

The big draw of this revival — originally due to run last year — is Ball reprising his Olivier-winning turn as Edna Turnblad, laundress mother of the dance-crazy Tracy, who has yet to embrace '60s liberation. Ball has total command of the material, landing one-liners with aplomb, forming an endearing bond with Lizzie Bea's Tracy, and relishing this multifaceted drag role. He can both work a feathered hem and threaten to throw a punch. 

It's a performance that shifts into panto at times, especially when Ball ad libs to crack up Les Dennis, playing husband Wilbur. Dennis is a jolly presence, but vocally underpowered and clearly busking it during the dance numbers.

Overall, Jack O'Brien's production needs more tonal consistency. Rita Simons and Georgia Anderson play the Von Tussles as cartoon villains — enjoyably so in the latter case, giving us a very funny, shrill Amber. But that's slightly at odds with more grounded work elsewhere, particularly from Bea as Tracy and Ashley Samuels as Seaweed J Stubbs. This show is a tricky balancing act: relishing its zany, colourful fun, without losing the heartfelt story at the centre.

However, Bea is a delight as the plus-sized, giant-haired Tracy, determined to follow her dreams of dancing on her favourite TV show. She could make more of the comic possibilities, but gets great mileage out of Tracy's unbridled lust for crooner Link (a suitably appealing Jonny Amies). 

Michael Vinsen's Corny Collins amusingly lives up to his name, shiny trousers and all (glorious costumes by William Ivey Long), while, as Penny, Mari McGinlay proves to be an adept physical comedian. There's also a scene-stealing turn by Kimani Arthur as Little Inez, while Ashley Samuels makes Seaweed a genuinely exciting dancer — and imbues those smooth moves with real meaning, too.

But the knockout performance comes from Marisha Wallace as Motormouth Maybelle, whose "I Know Where I've Been" begins as an intimate, bluesy number, sung to her children, and builds to a great cry, testifying about her experiences and beseeching the heavens for progress.

While Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Marc Shaiman, and Scott Wittman's show does minimise social injustice with its overly neat ending, in some ways it feels startlingly contemporary. There's an activist protagonist using her platform to enact change, a joke about how rigging the justice system to win a contest is "un-American" that plays differently in 2021, and the lyrics of "I Know Where I've Been" still confront us" "Just to sit still would be a sin" is the challenge issued by the Black Lives Matter movement to be more than a passive ally.

Yet, ultimately, Hairspray is a great big hug of a show. With its catchy '60s songs and explosive dancing, it's a joyful welcome back to musical theatre audiences — and to a re-emerging West End.

Hairspray is running through 30 September at the London Coliseum. Book Hairspray tickets in the West End on London Theatre today.

Photo credit: Lizzie Bea as Tracy Turnblad and Jonny Amies as Link Larkin (Photo by Tristram Kenton)


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