Thursday, 15 October 2015


Image Source: Hairspray
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy
Date: October 12 2015
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

Hairspray recently made an eagerly-anticipated return to Liverpool, once again emanating from the Liverpool Empire Theatre. The show is all about having fun and tackling important issues in a manner that brings a smile to one's face and with a flair that ensures you will be cheering on the lead characters as they strive to achieve their goals. The plot has multiple layers, but they all come together nicely and, through their development and resolution, combine to tell a story which is both eye-catching and entertaining, making for a very enjoyable night at the theatre.

The lead character, Tracy Turnblad (Freya Sutton), is a slightly overweight teenage girl living in Baltimore who, along with her friend Penny (Monique Young), loves to watch the locally-based TV programme The Corny Collins Show. This is to the disapproval of her mother Edna (played by Tony Maudsley; you can tell it's a male playing the somewhat masculine female, but I didn't realise till midway through that it was Tony, which is a positive I suppose!), with her father Wilbur (Peter Duncan) not minding as his priority is keeping his joke shop in business. One day, the 1960s-based show that blends intricate dancing with feel-good singing reveals that the programme will soon be looking for a new dancer, and that interested parties should audition.

After much persuasion, Tracy and Penny are given the chance to go along, but are confronted on the day by the spoilt brat dancer Amber (Lauren Stroud), who calls them out for their physical appearances. However, they try to ignore Amber as their eyes are on the attractive male dancer Link Larkin (Ashley Gilmour), who tells the casting committee (amongst them Amber's mother Velma Von Tussle, played by Claire Sweeney) that they should give Tracy a chance. While they ponder the decision, Tracy's school studies continue to suffer and she is sent to detention where she meets an African-American crew of students, led by Seaweed (Dex Lee). Their funky dance moves and laid-back attitude impress Tracy, who it must be said is a quick learner when it comes to the art of dance. But the most important aspect of Seaweed is that his mother Motormouth Maybelle (played by Brenda Edwards of X Factor fame) works on the Corny Collins programme. One thing leads to another, and in the end, to the dismay of Amber and Velma, Tracy makes it as a dancer to The Corny Collins Show.

But the story is not over yet; far from it. For Tracy begins to gain popularity and fame, much to the jealous dismay of Amber who goes about trying to bring Tracy down. Meanwhile, Tracy tries to get her family more noticed with the belief that such exposure could assist them financially, and through her friendship with Seaweed, she also makes a real effort to help her African-American buddies at a time (1962) when racial segregation was a major situation in America. In addition, Tracy and Link appear to be getting closer, and even Penny, who is previously controlled by her dictatorial mother, has a crush in the form of Seaweed. These plot lines continue alongside some other side stories (amongst them Edna and Wilbur attempting to rekindle their romance). This all leads to a climatic final scene, broadcast live on The Corny Collins Show, which will truly determine whether the lead characters can achieve their goals or whether they will be thwarted on a grand stage.

This show is very much a feel-good production, from the colourful and old-fashioned set designs (particularly for the TV show, the set for which looks perfect nostalgic) to the bright, positive messages of the musical score. In addition, Tracy is always vibrant and optimistic, never truly allowing those who bring her down to keep her from bouncing back. Freya Sutton explained this to me in a recent interview (which you can read by clicking here), and it shines through during the show: her cheery personality, unwavering loyalty for family and friends and her determination to push through with her objectives, along with her flawless American accent and her rather impressive dance moves, all combine to create a memorable and positive character, with Freya's portrayal of Tracy being the clear highlight of the show.

That being said, the best singing performances come from Maybelle; this isn't a surprise considering that Brenda has previously showcased her vocal range on The X Factor, but her renditions of several tunes are still stunning. Other notable aspects include Seaweed and crew performing some very intricate dance routines, and the evolution of several characters, amongst them Penny (who goes from quiet and shy to outgoing and adventurous) and Edna (who changes from a miserable, always-moaning mother to a positive, self-confident and proud parent). A special mention must also go to Karis Jack who plays Little Inez, by far the youngest member of the cast, whose singing and dancing make this a worthwhile show to see in its own right.

So, overall, Hairspray was definitely a very enjoyable theatre production. It tells clear stories and brings a number of plot lines to one satisfying conclusion, all the while providing catchy tunes, spectacular dance moves and, more than anything, a positive message that shows how you can achieve just about anything if you really try and work as hard as you can to make it happen. Hairspray could return to the Empire in future but, in the meantime, you should check it out during its current run; you're certain to have a fun time.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10 - Excellent

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