Hairspray (****)

~ Philip Fisher for The Western Mail - 02/11/2007 ~

THE West End has discovered a new star – and, for once, she is anything but a size zero.

Hairspray sees the professional stage debut of Leanne Jones, who only a year ago was still at drama school.

It is hard to believe this when you see her astonishing performance as Tracy Turnblad, the oversized young heroine with big hair and a bigger voice, who dreams of fame, fortune and racial integration.

A glitzy opening night audience including two men who know about the musicals – Lord Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton – saw a show with a great pedigree that looks like a surefire hit.

John Waters' cult film is now almost 20 years old but thanks to a great performance from Divine as Edna Turnblad, it is still unforgettable.

The musical version wowed Broadway and spawned a new movie with John Travolta playing a dream part that is now recreated on stage by an unrecognisable Michael Ball.

Jack O'Brien, who directed the New York production, has breathed wonderful life into the London show.

For once, to call it camp and kitsch is a real compliment since that is what it set out to be. Set and costume experts, David Rockwell and William Ivey Long, have designed everything in the worst possible taste, with vibrant and sometimes horrifying colour clashes the norm.

Baltimore in 1962 was rife with prejudice so that TV hits like The Corny Collins Show can only feature white kids while their black counterparts must appear with Motormouth, played by soul diva Johnnie Fiori.

Where the writers break the mould is in setting the ballsy Tracy against Rachael Wooding's cute Amber, a dumb blonde, egged on by the pushiest of mothers, played by former Corrie regular Tracie Bennett, in a battle for Link Larkin, played by Ben James-Ellis and the award.

On real TV, the chubby youngster wouldn't get a look in and her mountainous mother would be banned. However, with support from Edna and dad Wilbur, played with gentle wit by Mel Smith looking uncannily like WC Fields, she really can become Miss Teenage Hairspray of 1962.

First though, with help from her ugly duckling friend Elinor Collett's Penny, who discovers beauty and the smooth-voiced Adrian Hansel as Seaweed, Tracy does something far braver. She befriends her black schoolmates and attempts to lift the barrier of segregation that prevents the two communities from mixing and more to the point, dancing together.

With its ‘60s influence, the music moves between soul and pop and there are enough hummable tunes to please the punters. Highlights include Welcome to the 60s featuring Leanne Jones but also a great soul trio The Dynamites; Timeless to Me, a comic soft shoe shuffle with Michael Ball and Mel Smith and unforgettably, the final song involving the whole cast, You Can't Stop the Beat – and you really can't.

This vibrant production thrills throughout its 2½-hour duration with lively music, great choreography and a vein of humour that gets far more laughs than most musicals could wish for. It is easy to see why it won practically every award going in New York and justice will not be done unless London follows suit and in particular, gives Leanne Jones a stream of Best Newcomer prizes with her abilities as actress and dancer combined with a tuneful voice.

The ozone layer could be a lot thinner by the time this Hairspray runs out of gas.


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