Hairspray continues at Curve, Leicester until April 5.
It’s hard to believe that this is Rebecca Craven’s professional musical debut. Best known to TV viewers of the BBC1 school saga Waterloo Road, she looks completely at home in the lead role of Tracy Turnblad, the dumpy teenager who dreams of being Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962.
In frumpy blouse, ill-fitting, high-waisted skirt and beehive hairdo, she endears from her first entrance on to Curve’s great stage, where the voice has an almost cartoon edge to it that captures both the time and place and the aspiration. Craven in her professional life is an ambassador for anti-bullying and that’s appropriate too in this context. It is a perfect piece of casting, as is David Witts (EastEnders’ Joey Branning) as the teenage dream, Link Larkin. He comes to the show with almost no theatre experience but is a natural in the role and gets rapturous applause for his duet, ‘Without Love’, with the incarcerated Tracy.
This is a stunning production from Curve’s artistic director Paul Kerryson, exuberantly danced (credit to choreographer Lee Proud), full of joy and mischief and beautiful to look at. The show captures all the novelty and excitement of early TV in the flashing smiles of the DJs on The Corny Collins Show and the giggly effervescence and optimism of the dancers. We see it in full colour on stage and in black-and-white on the 1960s-style TV monitors around the auditorium over which the starstruck teens huddle after school.
It radiates warmth but its real power is to take the critical issue of racial segregation – John Waters’ original film is based on a real incident on a real TV show, when black and white teenagers in Baltimore stormed a live broadcast – and through comedy to demonstrate its utter absurdity. Prejudice and white superiority is embodied in Velma Von Tussle, gleefully played by Sophie-Louise Dann. Claudia Kariuki takes the place by storm as Motormouth Maybelle, with a voice that can do anything and go anywhere.
Every number in Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score is a big one, from ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ to the finale, ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’. Damian Williams is a delight as Edna Turnblad, standing over the ironing board in sensible shoes and dresses that look as though she’s just run them up on her sewing machine. Williams has a gravelly voice that can roar and he doesn’t play it like a Dame. He just plays it like a woman.
The number, ‘(You’re) Timeless to Me’, sung in duet with his much shorter ‘husband’ (John Barr) is a comic highlight. Many more of these moments come from Zizi Strallen’s delightful performance as the awkward, eager teenager Penny Pingleton, all plaits and satchel and defying convention in falling for the black boy, Seaweed (Tyrone Huntley).
The windows of the three tall Baltimore houses on Paul Moore’s set can light up like a rainbow, and the bars of the House of Correction extend for the whole width of Curve’s stage. The show gets a standing ovation and everyone comes out beaming. It couldn’t be otherwise.
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Rebecca Craven makes it big in Hairspray at Leicester’s Curve – Interview