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Hairspray Review: ‘Ultimate feel-good show struts back in a bouffant-ed blaze of glory’

The 1960s-set musical "sounds a battle cry for race equality in a way its creators couldn’t possibly have envisioned", writes Simon Button

By Alastair James

Words: Simon Button; pictures: provided/Tristram Kenton

It seemed, for a while, that COVID could actually stop the beat of the much-delayed Hairspray revival.

But a few postponements later, the ultimate feel-good show struts back into London in a bouffant-ed blaze of glory.

The go-to for a good time since it premiered on Broadway in 2002 and the West End five years later, the show’s return to the London stage – with Michael Ball again in the role he first slayed in 2007, and a brand new star-in-the-making in Lizzie Bea – couldn’t be a livelier or more colourful way to mark the resurrection of the big, bright, splash-the-cash crowd-pleasing musicals that were a financial staple of the theatre scene pre-pandemic.

The cast of Hairspray (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Sure, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Six and Amelie preceded it, but they’re chamber pieces compared to this plus-sized show which loudly celebrates diversity in all shapes and sizes and also, thanks to last year’s Black Lives Matter movement, now sounds a battle cry for race equality in a way its creators couldn’t possibly have envisioned – not John Waters when he originally wrote and directed the film in 1988, nor Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan when they adapted it for the stage.

Clearly blissfully happy to be treading the boards again, Ball has a ball as Edna Turnblad – mother to tearaway teen Tracy (Bea), whose dream is to dance on The Corny Collins TV show even though she’s a curvy girl in an era (the early 60s) when that was frowned upon.

Michael Ball and the cast of Hairspray (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Tracy is also baffled by racial segregation which means black kids can only dance on the show once a month – much to the dismay of local DJ Motormouth Mabelle, who is played by Marisha Wallace with such incredible vocal prowess that she achieves the rare feat of scoring a standing ovation before the show has even finished.

When it does finish, with the exuberant ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ (which seems to go on forever and could go on even longer as far as I’m concerned) the audience has been entertained, uplifted, and indeed educated.

That has a lot to do with the performances. Michael Ball’s comic timing is as impeccable as his voice and he and Les Dennis as Edna’s husband Wilbur bring the house down with their duet ‘(You’re) Timeless To Me’. Mari McGinlay is hilarious as Tracy’s best mate Penny Pingleton and Ashley Samuels is the show’s standout dancer as Motormouth’s son Seaweed.

Then there’s Lizzie Bea – who isn’t, I have to admit, the most talented Tracy to date when it comes to the dance moves. But she is the most endearing, and from the moment she launches into the opening number ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ it’s clear she’s a fantastic singer.

Lizze Bea in Hairspray (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Hats off to the brightly-coloured sets, witty choreography, and the brilliant Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman score, which serves up one earworm after another.

It takes a big show to fill a venue as vast as the London Coliseum and, even when it’s only a third full because of COVID restrictions, Hairspray is as big as they come.


Hairspray is at the London Coliseum until 29 September 2021. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.

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