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Review of Hairspray at Royal & Derngate (Derngate), Northampton

Having clocked up fifteen musicals since my first just eighteen months ago I thought I had become used to their shear exuberance at times, but I knew I had to be prepared for Hairspray as having seen the Travolta film version, this I realised was going to be off the campometre. I wasn't quite prepared as a cascade of bright colours, over the top performances and madness ensued.

What kept it working for me though as someone who prefers his plays to his sing and dancers was the actual tough narrative behind the big characters. Hairspray in its own unique way tells a very powerful story of prejudice and racial tension of the early sixties. A place where whites and blacks didn't mix on television (the latter had their so-called Negro day once a month) and that the place for the slightly increased in body substance was doing the laundry and certainly not on the TV in peoples living rooms. So in huge, no ginormous brush strokes Hairspray tells a strong tale behind the frilly dresses and neon like suits.

As to be expected the acting is bold and big and in the case of Tony Maudsley as Edna Turnblad, also big in statue, from height and girth he towers over his diminutive husband Wilbur (Peter Duncan). Both give great performances, but it does take until the second half and the song You're Timeless To Me for Duncan to get a full chance to show his skills. They provide during this routine some of the bigger, and more fruity laughs of the night. Freya Sutton as Tracy Turnblad is a pocket rocket of energy throughout providing the acting standards and vocal skills required for the lead role. Claire Sweeney also does not disappoint as the frankly horrible and racist Velma Von Tussle. While Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle perhaps once again proves that the best acts don't win the X-Factor as she belts out some audience gasping moments.

For all the excellent leads though, the stars of the show lie further down the billing for me. Never bettered in the show is Monique Young as Tracy's tremendously awkward friend Penny. She is simply brilliant at all times and whenever on stage the eye drifts as if like a magnet to her perfected awkward dance moves. Her evolution through the play is deftly performed in such a bold show and coupled with the simply superb Dex Lee as Seaweed with his killer moves, they make indeed the perfect couple. Also an absolute delight is Tracey Penn as her various brassy and suggestive characters.

Drew McOnie's choreography is also a simply incredible feast of delights. His work had been brilliant in Royal & Derngate's homegrown Oklahoma earlier in the year, but with Hairspray he moves the notch up another degree with some stunningly put together pieces and the hugely talented swing nails them to perfection. Less successful for me is the set which perhaps at times is a little too clever and dynamic. There is also for the first time for me a rather distracting situation of seeing a little too much off stage action. Due to a wheeled on and off stage, there is a curtain that doesn't reach the floor and I am afraid due to this you tend to see a lot of action of people legs walking about. I wondered at first whether my location in the stalls to one side was to blame, however having consulted with fellow blogger @chrispoppe who was centre stalls, this was not the case. There were also a few technical moments on the night including the loss of one of the four monitors and Jon Tsouras (Corny Collins) mic failure (which was very well handled though).

However despite any criticism it is an excellent lively show which the packed, and I mean packed audience at Royal & Derngate loved. The finale song You Can't Stop The Beat is one truly special song and the full cast make it a brilliant finish to the evening and despite some reservations from me and some design issues comes highly recommended.

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Performance reviewed: Monday 28th September, 2015 at the Royal & Derngate (Derngate), Northampton.

Hairspray is on at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 3rd October, 2015 before continuing its tour until the 14th May, 2016. Details can be found at http://www.hairsprayuktour.com/

For further details about the Royal & Derngate visit their website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/


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