Browse reviews

Brighton Year-Round 2021


Mark Goucher and Matthew Gale

Genre: Adaptation, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Director Paul Kerryson, Choreographer Drew McOnie, Musical Supervisor Ben Atkinson, Set and Costume Designer Takis, Lighting Philip Gladwell, Sound Designer Ben Harrison, Casting Jonathan Russell. Till September 25th and touring


After a nine-month delay (and there’s a nine-month joke coming too) John Water’s 1988 film turned-2002musical by O’Donnell/Meehan/Shaiman/Wittman Hairspray is back to fix us.

This strangely joyous musical involves Edna Turnblad a pantomime dame mother once taken by Michael Ball (Alex Bourne in quite fine basso), her podgy daughter, and whippet husband Wilbur, taken by Norman Pace – both Bourne and Pace have their best moment in the second act’s second song ‘You’re timeless to me’ a showstopper, which stops and stops – luckily it’s good.

Much is taken from the film and not all references will strike. Why the heroine’s family are called ‘commies’ by the baddies. Why? Because they’re Jewish and many U.S. communists from the 1920s-50s were Jews for idealistic reasons. So it makes perfect sense this family are going to be anti-racist, anti-segregation, pro-rights and the enemies of prejudice.

That bit of anti-Semitism against the background of segregation recalls Driving Miss Daisy. There’s other jokes too, references to Rosa Parks. Point is, much is packed in and if you’re attentive you get the substance. Trouble is it’s not always integrated into fluent storytelling. Given there’s little time in a musical that’s understandable; but there’s a lot of time hanging around in corners of this 2 hours 30 vehicle, and more in one sense would be more.

Daughter Tracey Turnblad is taken by the terrific Katie Brace with a voice from blow-torch to melt to pathos and sheer joy, with moves meaning you rivet on her and few others. She’s superb. Tracey manages to win a place on a local Baltimore TV contest by taking lessons from black youth Seaweed (Akim Ellis-Hyman, a very fine dancer and voice, though his diction’s unclear) though Tracey too conveniently fancies Ross Clifton’s Link Larkin, local heartthrob; just to prove the big girl can make it sexually, though Larkin’s a bit of drip. Clifton does what he can with his part, poignant in the slow-motion arrest at the climax of Act One reaching out to touch Tracey. He has several growing points to get through before he can stand by the phenomenon of Tracey.

No chance Tracey will love Seaweed, who luckily is launched raunchily at by Tracey’s best friend bespectacled Penny, Rebecca Jayne-Davies who really does ensure she’s the show’s slinkiest dancer in her big transformation; being the second pair of lovers Penny and Seaweed can afford to be more lusty on stage. Class is tightly choreographed on musicals.

That’s true even though this is based on a true incident, when black and white youths invaded a segregated TV show in 1963. The ending there wasn’t so happy but it changed things. Here, we have tribulations, multiple arrests, and even a price on Tracey’s head when she’s arrested and then escapes. but the governor pardons all when he sees the invasion on his screen.

Pantomime villains are Velma and Amber Von Tussle, Rebecca Thornhill and Jessica Croll, nicely nasty with faux Baltimore hauteur, though the thinness of material even for them means they stay cardboard even when they faint.  Thornhill in particular is allowed a little more life and seizes it with an impressively camped performance, especially when being carried out horizontal.

The two facilitators, apart from Edna, are the liberal Corny Collins, taken here by Richard Meek, the TV host who welcomes the de-segregated dance invasion and even jail-breaking – for protesting – Velma-targeted Tracey. He’s finally free of the Cruella Velma Producer act and her blackmailing the governor with interesting Polaroids.

And then there’s Motormouth Maybette.

Brenda Edwards has to wait a while before she’s really given her big number, but Edwards establishes presences in all her scenes. In her great rallying cry to her black and white proteges, Edwards suddenly opens up ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ and we’re in a different musical terraced with feeling, history struggle, emotional power and more than a tinge of greatness.

Then there’s Maybette’s daughter little Inez, engaging and lithe in Charlotte St Croix’s rendering, a promise of a third pairing perhaps and someone who’s allowed sallies of wit and fire. A telling moment is Penny’s escaping and eloping with Seaweed just as Tracey and Link have made it over from prison. ‘She’ll kill me’ wails Penny of her horrible bondage-prone mother. ‘No, she’ll kill him’ Inez points to her brother Seaweed.

Ceris Hyne takes the horrible mother and jailor role and Paul Hutton the male equivalent. The three Dynamites are all fine singers too – Bernadette Bangura (Shayna), Natalie Browne (Judine), Eliotte Williams N’Dure (Kamillah). Zoe Heighton takes Lou-Ann, whose nine months away ensures a space has to be filled, and theres’ brief names plus ensemble work from a uniformly excellent cast: Elizabeth Armstrong (Tammy), Hayley Johnson (Brenda), Joshua Pearson (Brad, the mean show-off), Alexanda O’Reilly (IQ), Liam dean (Fender, another meaner show-off), Joseph Poulton (Duane), Joshua Nkemdilim (Thad), Andrew Dillon (Gilbert), with Shaquille Brush (Swing Captain), and Swings Jamie Jonathan, Amandla Elynah, Rosie O’Hare,

Director Paul Kerryson keeps the energy and pace, Choreographer Drew McOnie produces a period feel about to break out of it, and the end naturally is his set-piece. Musical Supervisor Ben Atkinson and his orchestra are first-rate, set and costume Design are taken by Takis. The vertical bed Tracey wakes up in promises more memorable set moments that occasionally arrive. Stage left we have a house external with flashing windows and a pull-away interior for the heroine’s family. Stage left there’s a few more of these, though it’s a necessarily spartan set and won’t please all. Finally a giant hairspray container tops it off. Suits are suitably all colours of the LSD rainbow, with the exception of the young heroine always dressing below the sham glitz elsewhere; and the defiance of the black community with its break-out gear.

Philip Gladwell – well-known as a lighting designer – deploys a couple of set pieces to show what he can do, but given the overall heft – live orchestra and number of performers – there’s a feel in set/costume design and lighting this is a bit like a musical on a budget, which it can’t be. There were a number of costume issues but happily the dancers blew all this away.  Sound Designer Ben Harrison is used to amping up just below drum-burst level.

The big number opening and second half with three numbers including the finale is the best thing, some numbers second-or-third-order and unmemorable. Even ‘Mum I’m a big girl now’ doesn’t stick. The singing though is fine, the ensemble and choreography joyous and Kerryson’s direction again crisp through Takis’ uncluttered design to allow the theatre’s limited space maximum purchase.

That final number ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ is nailingly memorable and McOnie too rises to the challenge of an often small stage as this one, to allow the energy to get across. It’s an exhilarating feel-good yes to everything, that rivers will flow. If only. But 1962 was on the cusp of huge change still unfolding before us on later TV screens than the Corny Collins show. You wonder what life, rather than the musical, will do with some of these characters.

Hairspray has a heart, though like the 2009 film The Help, there’s a Liberal anxiety to feel better about racism, whilst somehow keeping its real issues and the present injustices at bay. It’s not the heroine who lands the slinky Seaweed. I suppose that a white girl, even if the second-fiddle best-friend manages it, is something in the right direction.

This tour wants a little in production values, and vocally several performers aren’t ideally clear. But you can’t fault the mostly superb cast: singing, dancing, with thrilling orchestral contribution. Brace and Edwards are the absolute stand-outs, but several come close: as dancers Ellis-Hyman and Jayne-Davies for instance. This is otherwise an ensemble you’ll remember, in an intermittently superb musical.