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Standing ovation as Hairspray the Musical rocks Royal and Derngate

Review: Hairspray. Royal and Derngate, Northampton (opening night January 31)

I had never seen Hairspray before. Yes, I know, I know. It’s one of the most popular musicals in the world, an award-winning tour de force combining fantastic music and storytelling and genuine social commentary that, although set in 1962 Baltimore, certainly still resonates today.

But musicals…? You either love ‘em or hate ‘em, right?

“Just admit that you loved it Mum and write ‘It was great’ over and over until you hit the word count,” suggested my 13-year-old, musical-theatre fan daughter.

“And don’t call me a fan, I’m not a fanatic.” (This is what you get bringing up four kids with two journalist parents). “And don’t call me a kid…”

photography by Mark Senior

OK, so it was great. Really great. You don’t need to go to the West End when the West End comes to Northampton. I was blown away by the skill of the huge cast – more than 20 on stage for complex yet seamless dance sequences, belting out song after song from the best known You Can’t stop the Beat finale to the intricate Mama I’m a Big Girl Now and I Know Where I’ve Been.

The show opens in ‘60s Baltimore, Maryland, with ‘gently plump’ schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad (Katie Brace) belting out Good Morning Baltimore with her trademark black flick beehive, observing the flashers, rats and alcoholics before heading home to agoraphobic mum Edna (a drag role played by Alex Bourne) and joke-shop owner dad Wilbur (Norman Pace, yes, the one from Hale and Pace, all you people of a certain age).

photography by Mark Senior

Tracy and her best pal, Penny (Rebecca Jayne-Davies, aforementioned daughter’s favourite actor of the night), tune in their TV to the Corny Collins Show, a teen dance programme, based a on a real, American Bandstand-esque show of the time. Tracy and Penny yearn to get on the show, but detention, mean girl Amber (Jessica Croll) and her pushy TV producer mother Velma (Rebecca Thornhill), plus a massive dollop of classism, racism and body-shaming, look like killing their dream.

photography by Mark Senior

But Tracy bunks off school, meets heartthrob Link (understudy Joshua Pearson did an excellent job on first night) and makes a big impression on show host Corny (Richard Meek), as well as winning the show lots more fans and a plus size clothing contract. Cue loads of amazing costume changes (bravo Takis).

photography by Mark Senior

But Tracy’s stardom is short-lived. With and with the help of Motormouth Maybelle (the extraordinary Brenda Edwards), her kids Seaweed (Reece Richards) and Little Inez (the very talented Charlotte St Croix) and others segregated by their race (despite it being over 100 years since slavery was abolished in the southern states), they storm the show and a riot sees everyone locked up. (Locked up for protesting? How very now…) Cue a race to escape and get everyone live on air for the TV show finale.  

photography by Mark Senior

Hairspray the Musical came after John Water’s cult film of 1988, which starred Ricki Lake as Tracy, Debbie Harry as Amber and drag icon Divine (in his last role) as Edna.  Waters was to cut through the discrimination of the 60s still evident in the 80s, from racism to gay rights.  

Today’s Hairspray does the same, skewering the biases and bigotry with a riotously funny musical. Bourne and Pace have a hilarious chemistry and comic timing as Edna and Wilbur, while Brenda Edwards’ voice during Maybelle’s protest ballad I Know Where I’ve Been moved many to tears – such is her power (and yes, she’s the one off Loose Women, The X-Factor and Songs of Praise). Newcomer Katie Brace as Tracy is a total star – from her voice to her movement and acting with every inch of her face. You also can’t take your eyes off Charlotte St Croix (Little Inez), who I’m confident will be one to watch.

Brenda Edwards as Maybelle

There’s not enough space here to name them all but it’s an incredible cast at the top of their game – from the skill of the dancers on a relatively small stage to the live band who sometimes appear as part of the show – we’re really very lucky to have the Royal and Derngate for these top-of-their-game touring shows.

It WAS great!

Book now if you can, it’s on until Saturday (February 5) with tickets from Derngate Box Office or on 01604 624811.

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