Mar 15 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Pump up the volume

Playhouse: Mon 14 – Sat 19 Mar 2022
Review by Martin Gray

Unlikely civil rights heroine Tracy Turnblad dances her way to a social justice triumph as Hairspray returns to the Playhouse for a week until Saturday and comes back to Glasgow at the end of the month.

There some shows that come to Edinburgh so regularly that skipping them is the only way to stay sane. Not Hairspray, though. The musical, based on the John Waters film, is such a blast of sunshine with its songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that a great presentation can have you smiling for weeks.

Richard Meek, Katie Brace and Reece Richards with the ensemble. Pic Mark Senior

I’m grinning as I write this and I fully expect the expression to hang around for a while after enjoying this touring treat in a deservedly packed house.

It’s 1962 and teenage Tracy Turnblad wants nothing more than to dance with ‘The Nicest Kids in Town’ on The Corny Collins Show an after-school pop show. With cast member Brenda indisposed for, er, nine months, there’s an opening.

While there’s resistance from producer Velma Von Tussle – she’s not down with Tracy being slightly chubby – our heroine’s charm, pep and sheer dance talent win her a spot. But there’s another battle to be fought – to get African-American kids on the show regularly, rather than solely on the monthly, token ‘Negro Day’.

ridiculously singable

Helping out are Tracy’s best pal Penny Pingleton, parents Edna and Wilbur, record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle and more.

Hairspray is a full-on Broadway musical, replete with colour, life and ridiculously singable songs and hi-energy dancing, but it deftly delivers the traditional glam and glitter while facing up to all kinds of prejudices – race, body shape, class and age.

Katie Brace. Pic: Mark Senior.

The show’s success depends in large part – no gag intended – on whether you like Tracy. Safe to say that Katie Brace, in her professional debut, doesn’t disappoint. She has the moves, she has the puppyish charm and she has the voice – though it’s occasionally tough to make out lyrics… A little more concentration in the annunciation department and she’ll be there.

Brace works brilliantly with the rest of the cast, particularly Rebecca Jayne-Davies as Penny who is inspired to break free from her over-possessive – think roped to the bed – mother, by Tracy’s attitude that you don’t accept an unfair world, you change it.

Speaking of mothers, Alex Bourne is magnificent as laundress Edna, who regains the woman she was with a hand from Tracy. Bourne somehow manages to be constantly winking to the audience without actually blinking, and his big baritone makes for some cracking comedy moments.

a theatrical bonfire of brilliance

Bourne is paired with TV comedy favourite Norman Pace as Wilbur, from whom Tracy gets her irrepressible optimism. Wilbur has a quiet first act, but when his big duet with Edna arrives in the second half, boy, does Pace show what he can do.

Pace and Bourne are pure Vaudeville in their delivery of You’re Timeless to Me, a love song that manages to be hilarious yet deeply touching. The chemistry between the two is off the scale, it’s two pairs of funny bones rubbing against one another to create a theatrical bonfire of brilliance.

Alex Bourne and Norman Pace. Pic Mark Senior

In a show full of fantastic tunes – Good Morning Baltimore, Without Love, I Can Hear the BellsYou’re Timeless garners the biggest response. If there’s a better moment on the Edinburgh stage this year, I’ll be amazed.

While the rest of the songs are basically feel good, there is a poignancy to I Know Where I’ve Been, as Motormouth Maybelle opens her heart about her lifelong fight to be more than a second-class citizen. The song is beautifully delivered by Bernadette Bangura (depping in for the indisposed Brenda Edwards) who provides precision without skimping on emotion.

Rebecca Thornhill has a whale of a time as Velma Von Tussle, the wicked queen of The Corny Collins Show, especially in her big number, Miss Baltimore Crabs. Richard Meek is adorably sweet as TV host Corny Collins, Ross Clifton makes an amusingly narcissistic Link Larkin, the object of Tracy’s affection, and Jessica Croll is a hoot as Amber Von Tussle, Velma’s Mini-Me.

bundle of dynamite

Charlotte St Croix is a bundle of dynamite as Motormouth’s daughter Little Inez, barred from even auditioning for the TV show by her race, while Reece Richards brings real warmth, and a lovely voice, to her brother Seaweed, who basically brings on puberty for Penny.

The entire ensemble produce great work, their energy levels off the scale as they show off Drew McOnie’s sharp choreography, aided by a fantastic orchestra led by Rickey Long. This production boasts refreshed orchestrations from Ben Atkinson, and they work beautifully, bringing an almost big band flavour to the pop stylings of The Corny Collins Show – and for once having the band on stage made sense. The musicians aren’t always in view, mind, with subtly clever back projections supplementing the adaptable set.

The show ends with the irresistible You Can’t Stop the Beat, reminding us that no matter how bad things are, people power can make things better. Enjoy the music, absorb the message – that’s a pretty powerful Hairspray.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (including one interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA.
Monday 14 – Saturday 19 March 2022
Evenings: 7.30pm, Mats Weds, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Glasgow King’s Theatre, 297 Bath St, Glasgow G2 4JN
Mon 28 March – Sat 2 April 2022
Evenings: 7.30, Weds, Sat mat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

The cast of Hairspray. Pic Mark Senior


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