Did I just watch Michael Ball in the world’s longest ever RuPaul’s Drag Race audition? I don’t know — but I liked it. The first statesman of British musical theatre has embraced the eyeshadow to reprise his role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray at the London Coliseum, which nabbed him an Olivier Award in 2008. Delayed by the pandemic, it’s the first big musical to reopen after lockdown. Ball channels something between Hyacinth Bouquet and Betty Friedan, and I enjoyed it immensely. The rest of the show, about a plus-size high-schooler in Sixties Baltimore, is more of a mixed bag.
Set in 1960s Baltimore, our heroine is Tracy Turnblad (Lizzie Bea), who has big hair and even bigger dreams. She wants to audition as dancer on her favourite TV show, The Corny Collins Show, which will also put her in close proximity to her crush, Timothée Chalamet-lookalike Link (Jonny Amies). Mum Edna warns her that “they don’t put people like us on television”, but Tracy lands the gig, despite protestations from producer Velma (Rita Simons) and her mean girl daughter Amber, because Collins thinks she’ll help “update” the show. No one bargains for the fact that she wants to update it herself, by ushering in a new age of integration for the show’s black performers.
I’d love to herald this sweet, well-meaning show as the big, bombastic return of musical theatre to the West End. It has some great numbers and some stand-out performances (Marisha Wallace, given a standing ovation on press night, needs her own show, stat), but it sometimes feels functional and the plot is dated. It all feels a bit ‘white people solve racism’ — not to mention the eyebrow-raising lyric “now I’ve tasted chocolate and I’m never going back” — and Tracy’s trajectory is too neat and tidy.
But there’s something giddy-making about seeing big wigs, costumes and dance routines again. It feels churlish to complain too much about a show where a befrocked Ball emerges from a giant can of hairspray, and Wallace is a knock-out. Shantay, Hairspray stays.
London Coliseum, to September 29, hairspraythemusical.co.uk