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BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY, London Coliseum


A joyous revival bounces back into the West End

BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY, London Coliseum

BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY, London Coliseum

"There are a thousand of you here. There should be three [thousand], and you've made the noise of ten!" At last night's curtain call of this lively and colourful revival of Hairspray, leading man Michael Ball was keen to proclaim that the West End is back.

Returning to London after more than a decade, and a few false starts, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's musical is, to quote the closing number of act one, "big, blonde, and beautiful".

Hairspray is set in 1962, where racial segregation was still a reality and teenage girls could just about make the leap to join a TV show. Tracy Turnblad (played by Lizzie Bea, a vibrant newcomer and surely a star to watch) dreams of doing just that.

Within David Rockwell's detailed sets, brought to eye-popping 60s bubble-gum reality through William Ivey Long's costumes and Kenneth Posner's lighting design, we watch a story of strength, sisterhood, and integration unfold.

As Edna Turnblad and Motormouth Maybelle, Michael Ball and Marisha Wallace inhabit the roles for which they were surely born (Ball returning to the first of his Olivier Award-winning gigs just as funny and tough as before). Wallace stopped the show with her own standing ovation for "I Know Where I've Been": a song which outlines all her character's pain and resilience.

This woman has been outside the front door for years longer than those teenagers of all races who are now determined to kick it down, and she still sees danger ahead, counselling her son Seaweed (Ashley Samuels) and his white girlfriend Penny (Mari Mcginlay) of the "whole lotta ugly coming at you from a never-ending parade of stupid".

Elsewhere, Ball's Edna and her loving husband Wilbur (Les Dennis) share a tender moment in their duet "(You're) Timeless To Me", which displays tight comedy timing and the warmth of a happy marriage where an ample bosom cushions an ample heart. These two possess the chemistry to make it work and are a joy to watch.

Bea's Tracy is a trailblazer and a fighter. Dismissed rudely by classmate Amber (a cartoonish Georgia Anderson) and Amber's ladder-climbing mother (played by Rita Simons as a white supremacist caricature), she fluffs up her beehive, fixes on the man of her dreams (Link Larkin, a "young Elvis" played by newcomer Jonny Amies) and looks to bring teenagers of all colours together on camera.

There's a lot to unravel in the politics of Hairspray. If only the problems of racial inequality could be solved as easily as they are in the finale - unlikely in 1962, and as recent events show, unlikely even now. The corporate sponsor of "The Corny Collins Show" and dress designer Mr Pinky (both played by Dermot Canavan) are both motivated by money alone; and even wholesome Larkin turns away from Seaweed when they are first introduced.

Hairspray has some set pieces which will send you home with your feet tapping and with a smile on your face. The Dynamites's "Welcome to the 60s" is full of life from the time the trio step out from a street poster. The three teenagers (Tracy, Penny, Amber) trying to convince their mothers they are "big girls now" is supplemented by a clever use of the ensemble. And Tracy's declaration of love into full-blown fantasy in "I Can Hear The Bells" is as corny as any of the Gidget films of the period.

Hairspray is probably the show we all need just now in order to come together to be thoroughly entertained. With Jack O'Brien's direction, Jerry Mitchell's versatile choreography, and the band led by Alan Berry who deftly navigate the assorted musical styles in the score, this is a welcome revival.

As Tracy and friends tell us in the finale, "You Can't Stop The Beat".

Hairspray is showing at the London Coliseum until 29 September

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

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