Review: Hairspray, London Coliseum
4.0Overall Score
Listen to an audio recording of the review here.

A classic of modern musical theatre, Hairspray offers everything that makes the genre what it is: catchy music, mesmerising choreography, laugh-out-loud comedy and a thought-provoking plot. It’s for all of these reasons that watching this production of Hairspray at its very first full-capacity performance – complete with streamers, standing ovations, and about ten minutes of applause – acts as the perfect welcome back to the West End we’ve all been missing.

Billed as a revival of the original Broadway production; the staging, choreography, set, and costumes all remain almost perfectly unchanged. Director Jack O’Brien delivers a ‘replica’ production with attention to detail. However, small edits have been made to the script so as to update the language around race which shows a necessary awareness of how the world has changed since the show was originally created. At the same time, this sensitivity exposes the other outdated terms and jokes in the book, which then stick out like smudges on the show’s otherwise squeaky clean veneer.

The case of this production is incredible and brings new life and talent to the joyous and cheesy songs and action in the production. There’s no weak link in the cast: with Lizzie Bea as leading lady Tracy Turnblad. Michael Ball and Les Dennis as her quirky parents bring real warmth to their roles, although their big comedy duet falls a little flat due to its simplicity. Newcomer Johnny Amies as love interest Link Larkin gives one of the best acting performances, managing to bring some nuance to what can be a tricky role, while vocal stand-outs include Ashley Samuels as Seaweed, and Robyn Rose, Holly Liburd, and Mireia Mambo as the Dynamites.

The undeniable stand-out performer of the piece is Marisha Wallace as Motormouth Maybelle. Her Act 2 showstopper ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ is imbued with genuine emotion and her voice is truly astounding. When the company come together, holding hands, to sing ‘Use that pride in our hearts, to lift us to tomorrow’ it’s breathtaking. The sheer weight of feeling is tangible, and the song takes on a new depth following the events of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past year.

It’s the unspoken presence of current events like this, however, that make me wonder what it would have been like if this production had pushed a little further. A musical as rich and ever-relevant as Hairspray opens up so many possibilities for innovative direction, design and choreography. It’s understandable that this production chooses to stick with the original, but as we enter a new age of theatre, it feels a little stuck in the past. This is seen in some of the directional choices too: at times the acting feels too pantomime, and despite the clear talent of this cast, the familiarity of the show makes some performances feel a little tired at times, a little too expected.

Hopefully, though, the success of productions like this will help to make a new wave of musical productions possible. So many of this cast are fresh out of drama school, showing that there are a wealth of talented performers ready to take the stage, and the atmosphere of this crowd (a crowd!) is electric as they take their bows, showing that the public can’t wait to watch them shine. Let’s hope this marks, as the show says, ‘the rhythm of a brand new day’ for musical theatre.

Hairspray is playing at the London Coliseum until. For more information and tickets, see the Hairspray website.