Eileen Caiger Gray reviews Hairspray at Sheffield Lyceum (Jan 29th 2018)
It was back in 1988 that John Waters’ film Hairspray first entertained cinema-goers with its song, dance, fun, humour and extravagant campness. The issues behind the story, though, were far from funny: inequality, prejudice, the selfish pursuit of fame and fortune and intense racism. In real life Baltimore, Maryland, as in other US states in the fifties and sixties, segregation of blacks and whites was still going strong. From 1957, on six days of the week, Baltimore TV’s mega-hit teen show The Buddy Deane Show offered white teenagers only the chance to dance their way to fame and stardom. Then, on alternate Fridays black youngsters could take a turn with their own black DJ in charge. A mix of blacks with whites was unthinkable – forbidden – impossible, and white parents were strictly steering their kids in ‘the white direction’. But in 1963, those kids rebelled live on air, gate-crashing a show to mix white dancers with black dancers to the infinite horror and outrage of masses of viewers. The show was cancelled in 1964.
In film and on stage, The Corny Collins Show is based on Buddy Deane’s and on those real events. To inject boundless feel-good fun and humour, though, the story, set in 1962, is much simpler and less brutal than real life, with much simpler, happier, neater outcomes, too, in this full celebration of the principals of tolerance, acceptance and equality for all. Into the mix, larger than life, warm-hearted fighter for equality, Tracy Turnblad and her supa-dupa-sized mom, Edna, also bring to the fore another weighty issue – that of body image.
In essence, though, this is a simple, pretty linear tale. So does the new onstage Hairspray make for an ultra-clutch, firm hold performance? Well, it might be thought overly long by some, and filled with a good deal of sameness, but it’s bright, bouncy, energetic and colourful (sometimes to the point of lurid!) throughout, while in parts, it’s truly stupendous. The audience is certainly all revved up and on its multiple feet for the big finish finale of You Can’t Stop the Beat.
It’s Brenda Edwards who gives the most magical, spine-tingling performance as black DJ, Motormouth Maybelle. Her Tina Turner presence, glorious voice and outrageously good singing turn Big, Blond and Beautiful and I Know Where I’ve Been into top carat gold-dust. Layton Williams, as son Seaweed, shares some of his stage mum’s star quality, adding dancing and startling, non-stop back-flips to his singing skills. As sassy, supersize, bouffant-bearing heroine, Tracy Turnblad, Rebecca Mendoza brings warmth, commitment and talent to her professional debut, that make the audience love her. That she, like all the females in the show, must sustain a squealy, high-pitched US accent for all the speaking and all the singing is praiseworthy (though, at times, grating), while Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now for the trio of mother-daughters is a particularly pleasing arrangement both musically and set-wise.
Another big crowd pleaser is Matt Rixon as mountainous washerwoman mama, Edna. With husband, Wilbur (played by Norman Pace – yes, of Hale and Pace), his double-act comedy and duet of You’re Timeless To Me go down a storm. Other fine performances, too, are put in by Jon Tsouras as genial Corny Collins, Annaliese Liard-Bailey as Tracy’s pal Penny, and others.
For ramped-up camp, caricature, verve, colour and extravagant, overblown hairstyles and outfits, this Hairspray holds it all in place.
From now until May, the show visits Inverness, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Bristol, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Liverpool, Hull, Llandudno, Canterbury, Southend and Wycombe.