REVIEW: HAIRSPRAY (London Coliseum)

Hold my chicken and waffles, Hairspray is finally back in London!

On Sunday 4 July 2021, the much anticipated return production of Hairspray the Musical at the London Coliseum was forced to halt performances as a member of the production team tested positive for Covid. After “adhering to the strictest of protocols” for 10 days of isolation, they announced more cases had emerged and they were sadly unable to commence performances until 20 July 2021. With a true Tracey can-do attitude, the production used this dark time to rehearse a number of new off-site cast members into the production in order to hopefully avoid further suspensions and reopened this week.

If you’ve somehow missed the Hairspray phenomenon, the show tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and big dreams. Can she make it on the local TV dance show, win the heart of teen heartthrob Link Larkin and bring everyone together – whatever their colour, size or hairdo? In Baltimore, 1962- if you want change, you’ve got to think big to be big!

Each performer completely embodies their character and as soon as the curtain rises the audience can only sit back and enjoy the ride, knowing they’re in very safe hands.

As teen heroine Tracey Turnblad, Lizzie Bea sparkles. Her loveable energy and free abandon as she dances in bed during the opening number, feels like a beautiful warm hug welcoming the audience back to the theatre and back to Baltimore. As her Dad Wilbur, Les Dennis is lovable, fun and awkward… as only a father can be, while Michael Ball’s stunning performance serves an Edna that’s nuanced, resonant and makes everyone in the audience wish she was their mother. As Motormouth Maybelle, Marisha Wallace gives a show-stopping performance accumulating in a mid-show standing ovation for her gut-wrenching ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’. As Motormouth’s son Seaweed, Ashley Samuels gives a phenomenal performance establishing himself as the young leading-man as soon as the audience meets him and young Kimani Arthur’s Little Inez remains sweet while always speaking her mind. As the Von Tussel’s, Georgia Anderson gives a squeaky clean performance while serving some serious vocals in ‘Cooties’ and first cover Lori Haley (standing in for Rita Simons at this performance) delivered a Velma that epitomised a power hungry society unwilling to grow, learn and change. As teen heartthrob Link Larkin, Jonny Amies gives an outstanding performance, really coming into his own during ‘It Takes Two’ and giving the audience a glimpse of what positive growth, learning and change can look like. Attractive, no? From Penny’s clumsy start to her proud declaration at the end of the show, Mari McGinlay shows such skill in giving an uproarious performance (usually a beat behind the dance moves and always on the other foot) as Tracey’s awkward best friend with a heart of gold.

After celebrated long-running productions on Broadway and in the West End, a joyous film, numerous touring productions and a live television special, it’s hard to think of a better suited show to open the post-pandemic age. Its crowd pleasing, toe tapping music will always be a hit and its story of Tracey achieving her dreams will forever put a smile on your face. However, look a little closer and the shows powerful message of inclusivity and equality seems much more urgent after the societal shift brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement within the past 18 months. Seeing the show again and being a part of that audience feels like a statement. A protest of like minded people reflecting on the past and expressing a collection desire to enact change.

As the audience quickly leapt to their feet at the end of the show, goosebumps were felt as we suddenly realised we were standing in a full house. The sound roaring from the audience left several members of the cast in tears and a collective sigh of relief was felt. Theatre is back and it’s bigger, with more heart and much more hair than ever!

★★★★★

Reviewed by Stuart James