REVIEW: Hairspray at the Theatre Royal, Brighton

December 1, 2015


Hairspray is a joyous candy-coloured confection which has a heart as big as its outsize heroine. It manages to combine a thrilling slickness of staging with something quite magically uplifting and the result might, quite possibly, be the most purely enjoyable show of the last few years.

Based on John Waters’ film it follows the fortunes of Tracy Turnblad (Freya Sutton), a ‘pleasantly plump’ teenager growing up in Baltimore in the early ‘60s. She lives with her mother Edna (Tony Maudsley), a woman of ‘indeterminate girth’ and her kindly father (Peter Duncan). Her greatest wish is to appear as one of the regular dancers on the Corny Collins Show but her weight, and unconventional looks, mean that the show’s producer, Velma Von Tussle (Claire Sweeney) is automatically set against her becoming one of the ’nicest kids in towns’. But this bar also extends to the black community – apart from the one day a month the Corny Collins Show has ‘Negro Day’. And if this isn’t enough to contend with Tracy’s hormones are stirred up by handsome would-be crooner Link Larkin (Ashley Gilmour).

Most of the songs are expert pastiches which pay homage to such classics as Leader of the Pack and River Deep, Mountain High. They practically fizz with energy and the outstanding cast makes every note count. The show has a handful of more soulful numbers, including the truly powerful ballad I Know Where I’ve Been, which is given a spine-tingling rendition by Brenda Edwards.

One of the many surprises of the show is that despite its cartoon aesthetic and having larger than life characters, it also gives them a depth which is occasionally quite moving. There’s a real chemistry between Duncan and Maudsley which makes you believe that despite the years, and Mrs Turnblad’s imposing figure, they’re a married couple whose affection for each other runs deep.

It ends happily – and because it’s such a generous show the happiness is even extended to its ‘evil’ characters. Its final number, the dance-tastic You Can’t Stop the Beat, sends the audience on its way with the requisite song in its collective heart.

Continues at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Dec 12.

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