Review: Hairspray

Simon Hale watches the Birmingham Hippodrome production of Hairspray.

Beehives and bouffants from 1960s Baltimore have arrived in Birmingham with a touring production of Hairspray that does all it says on the can.

Uplifting and joyous, this returning Broadway musical postponed from last year because of the pandemic is a breathless high-octane show that focuses on positive body image and the drive for integration from the start of America’s civil rights movement.

Leading the action is plump teenager Tracy Turnblad played brilliantly in her professional debut by Katie Brace who harbours fantasies of dancing with other teens with piled up hair and her dream beau Link Larkin (Ross Clifton) on The Corny Collins Show on her local TV channel.

In her way is her mother Edna, played by Alex Bourne in what is a traditional male role, with dreams of her own as a dress designer rather than a dress washer – who forbids Tracy from auditioning for a role, worried that she would be rejected because of her size.

But Edna’s husband Wilbur, a joke-shop owner played by Norman Pace, insists she auditions – which involves facing show producer Velma Von Tussle, played wickedly well by Rebecca Thornhill, who is determined to keep the dancers as slim and white as her own spoilt daughter Amber (Jessica Croll).

Duly rejected on both her size and views: “I’m all for integration; it’s the new frontier” she declares, Tracy is sent to detention for skipping school where she and her friend Penny (Rebecca Jayne-Davies) begin their anti-segregation campaign in the company of black students including Seaweed (a superb Akeen Ellis-Hyman), who show off and teach them some great dance moves.

The rebellion develops at the record store run by Motormouth Maybelle, who hosts Negro Day, the once-a-month concession for black dancers to appear on The Corny Collins Show, secured by Corny Collins himself (Richard Meek) from the hairspray sponsor – much to Von Tussle’s annoyance.

Reality TV star Brenda Edwards as Motormouth lends a wonderfully rich voice to the campaign especially in her moving Gospel number I Know Where I’ve Been, while Bernadette Bangura, Natalie Brown and Eliotte Williams-N’Dure also give sparkling supporting performances as The Dynamites.

In contrast, Edna and Wilbur perform an hilarious duet to You’re Timeless to Me in music hall style, with some ad lib innuendo on opening night as they got slightly carried away. It brought back memories of when Norman Pace was one half of TV sketch show Hale & Pace in the 80s and 90s.

The big numbers, supported by recorded music and a live brass brand, are the most memorable and there are many, from the likes of the opening Good Morning Baltimore to the ultra-catchy closing song You Can’t Stop the Beat which got the audience to their feet clapping and singing along.

The only disappointment in an otherwise brilliant show are the limited sets with some of the backdrops reduced to projections on a screen. But don’t let this put you off applying the hairspray, putting on something colourful, and stepping out to the Hippodrome while the show lasts.

Hairspray is in performance at Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 2nd October. Tickets.