Review – Hairspray the musical, Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Thursday 18 October 2007

West End Whingers Hairspray logoPhil had been waiting a long time for this. Not because the Whingers are fans of the original John Waters film (although they are), nor because they enjoyed the new film version of the musical (although they did), nor even because the Broadway production with Harvey Fierstein [CLUNK] delighted them so much four years ago.

No, it’s a much longer story than that. Andrew – in a peculiar and rate act of largesse – was very quick off the mark many months ago to do his biggest block booking yet: 19 tickets (which Andrew considers a “round number” but Phil thinks it was intended to be 20 but that Andrew had one of his Russ Conway moments and ran out of fingers to count on).

Whatever. It was undoubtedly the single most complicated feat of Whinger logistics ever.

And Phil, of course, just couldn’t wait for the big night.

So that he could witness Andrew’s efforts go all pear-shaped and end in tears.

This wasn’t, however, merely run-of-the-mill Schadenfreude on Phil’s part. Andrew had posted the outing as an event on Facebook which had naturally drawn a huge response. But Phil largely eschews Facebook claiming he has “better things to do” (such as threading new elastic into his old pants) but if truth be told it’s simply jealousy because whereas – according to Facebook anyway – Andrew has 91 friends, Phil has just 35.

Determined to enjoy the debacle of the whole thing crashing round Andrew’s ears, Phil sent him a series of untitled emails saying helpful things such as “so and so is coming” and “so and so is coming now” and “so and so is not coming” and “one less please”.

The ensuing tussle around who was coming with whom and how many of them began to turn ugly.

Keith was on Phil’s list – or was he on Andrew’s? Adele suddenly couldn’t make it due to an impromptu holiday, then City Slicker had to drop out. A waiting list developed. Then people mysteriously started begging to drop out.

Lynne wanted to come but Andrew hadn’t noticed Phil’s email and – heaven forfend – she hadn’t accepted on Facebook.

Then Andrew suddenly revealed that due to a mix-up with the booking seven of the seats were not in the front circle after all, but (sit down and take a deep breath) at the back of the stalls. Who would get a good seat and who would be sitting with the sound desk? Who could tell?

Phil thought the show couldn’t possibly be as entertaining as the mess. He was positively salivating as Andrew had to renew his cards in phone boxes to drum up some last minute acquaintances. People were signing up just to see Andrew fall flat on his Facebook.

So would the visit to Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre drive a final wedge between the Whingers after they had managed to endure the combination of two weeks in each others’ company and pan-pipes during their “mysterious” expedition to the high Andes? Not quite.

Thank heavens for the show. By the interval everyone (even Phil) was in a good mood and enjoying themselves intensely. Happily, the Sturm und Drang of the few last months proved worthwhile and were paying dividends.

Because, somewhat embarrassingly, it was such a good show that the Whingers couldn’t come up with a single thing to whinge about (although Phil was unreasonably iffy about the sound balance, but then it was an early preview blah blah blah).

Packed full of energy and humour (hoorah! a proper musical!), the show lifted the spirits of everyone in the party.

Newcomer Leanne Jones was almost totally forgiven for snatching the part of Tracy Turnblad which the Whingers had earmarked for Katie Kerr. She is utterly lovable. The Whingers’ only concern is that with the energy she puts into the singing and dancing (this is a very demanding role) will result in a weight-loss so severe that she’ll be down to a size 0 within weeks and no longer be suitable for the role.

There are some impressive performances too. Psychic singer Johnnie Fiori pulls all the stops out for Motormouth Maybelle (although we would also be interested in seeing her understudy who according to the programme is just called “Yaa”) and former Coronation Street star Tracie Bennett makes a terrific Velma von Tussle. Hats off too to Elinor Collett (Penny Pingleton), Adrian Hansel (Seaweed) and, well, everyone really.

Any Dream Will Do runner-up Ben James-Ellis is fine as heartthrob Link Larkin and although Mel Smith seems a bit lost in the rather under-written role of Wilbur Turnblad, he enjoys himself immensely in “You’re Timeless To Me”, his big duet with Edna Turnblad.

Ah yes. Edna. The big question of, course, is: What about Michael Ball as Edna?.

Ball (of whom, you will recall, the Whingers have never really got the point until very recently) was a complete revelation, although erstwhile guest reviewer Lady Skipper (fresh from “darkest” Peru with the Whingers) was puzzled, scratched his elegant chin and asked Phil during the interval: “Who’s playing the mother?”

The Whingers had been initially doubtful about the casting of Ball and though Phil still thought he hadn’t come close to Harvey Fierstein‘s Broadway creation they were both surprised how comfortably he filled the shoes. He certainly filled the frocks.

There were audible gasps when Ball made his first appearance as the pre-makeover Edna – he looked astonishingly like Divine in the original movie and he clearly has been paying attention to what’s required of the role. Edna doesn’t need to be able to sing at all, of course, so Ball’s casting was a bit of a surprise, but he proves himself to be a first rate Edna with great comic delivery and he really, really gets Edna (and loves her).

And this is the secret of the joy of Hairspray really – the sheer lovability of the characters. Combine that with a fantastically early sixties colour palette across the sets and the costumes, fabulous wigs, loads of oomph, great songs (although, to be fair, they are at first sound rather too derivative, but improve massively on second and third hearing) and you’ve got something that hasn’t been seen at the Shaftesbury for rather a long time – a hit. Indeed the Whingers predict that the “home of the hits” monkey will finally jump off the back of the Shaftesbury Theatre and on to that of – mmmm, let’s see – the Novello?

What else is there to say? Possibly just to please the Whingers there was some business involving food falling into orchestra pit and the over-sized and beautifully produced programme was priced at just £4.

Indeed, so overwhelmed were the Whingers that they forgot to take a photograph of their entourage on this occasion, partly because some lightweights thought that a WEW outing ends when the curtain comes down. But with a creditable running time of two and a half hours there’s still an hour or more of drinking to be done – until the pub staff actually come and take your table away which you should apparently take (eventually) as a subtle message to go home.


It all worked out fine. 19 people turned up and the mix-up turned out to be the fault of the booking agency because the seven seats Andrew had thought he’d booked behind the other 12 in the Royal Circle were empty. So everyone got to sit in the Royal Circle for the second act. Vindication (cue supreme smugness) for Andrew.


Andrew would like to thank the following for their support regarding this West End Whingers outing: Charlotte, Colin, Corinne, David, Graham, Helen, Imke, Keith, Lauren, Lady Skipper, Lynne, Mark, Neil, Nicola, Oliver, Shaz, Simon.


13 Responses to “Review – Hairspray the musical, Shaftesbury Theatre, London”

  1. Graham Ward Says:

    A very fair summaton of the evening, and weren’t we lucky, despite the rather random distribution of seats. Mercifully, Nicola Bailey and I moved one row away from the sound desk, so all was immediately ease and comfort. It is probably worth mentioning that the rear stalls seats are not that much of a blight on the enjoyment of the evening, because the view was grand. For someone who last visited the Shaftesbury for repeat viewings of ‘Follies; and, worrryingly, prior to this as a thirteen-year old to see the original London production of ‘Hair’ back when the sixties [preportedly ‘swung’, I was pleasantly surprised by its ambience. The art direction for ‘Hairspray’; is spot on, and whoever the wigmeister is for the show deserves a special WEW shout, I think. God knows, the ozone depletion arounf Shaftesbury Avenue must reach critical proportion on a nightly basis!
    Thanks to all concerned for a great evening out. I was most delighted to have been involved, an confess to being a serial “Hairspray’ fan in whichever format it presents itself. It is a foregone conclusion that the Shaftesbury finally has a runaway success on its hands, and can’t fail on so many counts, be it the huge fan-base of Mr.Ball (who clearly DOES get Edna in a way that our dear departed Divine also did-the best late-life role of her career). It was interesting to note how he had clearly taken on board the nuances of Divine’s original inhabitation of the character, then quite simply made it his own, knocking, I am afraid to say, Mr. Travolta’s performance into a bit of a proverbial cocked-hat). Add to this, the forest-fire effect of the movie, as evidenced from a gaggle of school girls we encountered in the foyer apres-show, who clearly knew every word of the score and were not afraid to give it up for whoever was available to listen, and also the general feel-good factor that the piece evinces, it has hit writ large over every marquee. I particularly liked the shameleess marketing opportunity offered by the Hairspray shop, and was almost tempted by the t-shirt, for once a show-related item worth sporting. Golden Beehive awards all round!

  2. Charlotte Says:


    I should’ve stayed for the post-show drinks, shouldn’t I? Rookie mistake. Won’t happen again.

    Thanks for a lovely evening!

  3. westendwhinger Says:

    Yes Charlotte drinks are definitely de rigueur for a Whingers night out. Next time you’ll be dragged by your wilting ticket stub.
    Mr Ball was asked by Lorraine Kelly on brekkie TV this am: “What’s it like playing a woman?” to which he replied, “I get it”, he’d obviously been straight to the Whingers’ site seeking their approval.
    The fat suit he wears is called “Germaine” apparently. Ms Greer must be pleased.

  4. Lou Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the show and Michael Ball’s Edna. I knew he’d be great in this role 🙂

    It’s amazing how together the show is already and it’s only just going into the second week of previews.

  5. T. Wiswell Says:

    Well! Based on your on the mark review of Drowsy Chaperone, this means this show is a must-see!

    I was thinking about you guys last night as I watched the Patrick Stewart Macbeth last night, as Macbeth sliced bread and made sandwiches for himself and some flunkies. Food on stage! There was also a severed head, making me wonder if this will be the season of severed heads (after seeing the rather sad one waved around during The Bacchae). I was also thinking about you guys because I, too, leave during intermission during bad shows … and this was a show where intermission felt like the bit between boxing rounds where you sit in the corner and catch your breath, gathering your strength up before you jump in the ring again. I hope you get to see it! (And I’d like to go to a show with you guys some time!)

  6. True or not true? Who knows, but there’s a story going round that:

    someone is supposed to have gone to the Box Office and asked for their money back after seeing the show “because Michael Ball wasn’t in it!” They wouldn’t believe they had actually watched a performance with him there.

    Was it Lady Skipper?

  7. I only wish I could have seen it with you!

  8. @T. Wiswell – Be careful what you wish for.

  9. Esther Says:

    Whingers, I’m so glad you enjoyed Hairspray! I love the story and I love the music, and believe me, it only gets better the more you listen.

  10. daveross Says:


    You are cordially invited to the world’s first blog musical
    “Jimmy Blue”
    By David Ross
    With the music of
    Del Amitri
    Performances 24 hours a day, please invite a friend!

    I look forward to seeing you.

  11. Claire Says:

    Hmmm i’m yet to be convinced by the credibility of this show. I think it’s going to be another “Wicked”. Popular (excuse the pun) for a couple of years but then the hype will die down and another pop/rock/pigeon-hole-able musical will work its way over the pond and once again, we’ll all be hooked.

  12. emma Says:

    dude theres gonna be a sequal to the hairspray movie

  13. mirundap Says:

    To the comment above above get your facts straight

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