Hairspray has always been a musical drenched in intentional theatrics and profound socio-political meaning. It exhibits, underneath the glitter and vivid polyester suit-jackets, what it means to be anything but part of the white demographic splattered over The Corny Collins Show. Tracy’s idealism and naïveté are shown to be childishly innocent- the other characters repeatedly attempt to dissuade her from her guileless goals- yet Hairspray suggests, ultimately, that this was precisely what was needed to slash away at the indoctrinated systems of institutionalised and racist inequality.

Rebecca Mendoza as Tracy Turnblad proved to be an identical twin of the Tracy featured in other incarnations of the musical. She was bold and undaunted, refreshing and such a teenager. Put in sharp relief against the sinister Velma von Tussle (Gina Murray) and her defunct worldview, Tracy was, quite literally, a voice for change harmonising with and publicising the contemporary social clamours. Her opposition to Velma, as is the traditional dynamic of Hairspray, gifted the audience with a fantastically repellent villain spouting the racist mantras that are, by the end, thoroughly ransacked. Murray’s strength lay in her ability to swathe herself in the hatred she inspired in the audience; that is to say, she did Velma von Tussle exactly as we would expect.

Photo: Theatre Royal Plymouth

Jon Tsouras’ Corny Collins was injected with charisma and confidence, decked in dazzling colours to compliment his dramatic flourishes. He was a character modern audiences cheer for: a transformed man, or a metaphor for what society should be morphing into. There are, however, certain character performances that painted over the rest: Brenda Edwards’ Motormouth Maybelle and her rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been left the audience still and silent, as did Layton Williams’ Seaweed. Williams was a spectacular blend of self-possessed charm and theatrical talent, successfully back flipping (literally) away from any attempt to criticize his performance.

The most memorable segment, having said that, enveloped Edna and Wilbur Turnblad’s You’re Timeless to Me. Traversing through a smattering of mishaps, the slipping of the character masks drew the audience into a sense of comradery with Matt Rixon and Norman Pace as they persevered in their endearing sequence. It was neither extravagant nor complicated, but the sincerity and quaintness of this scene is what stuck in my mind after I left Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. In the midst of such intense- yet well-executed- theatrics, this more muted respite was placed in more relief by the indefatigable routines that bookended it.

Photo: Theatre Royal Plymouth

It would be an injustice to latch any criticism onto either the music or the spectacular choreography. For such a soundtrack-heavy production, the live, eight-piece band lurking just behind the visible set diffused the stage with a richness of sound that was the only suitable accompaniment for the belting musical numbers. The trilling vocal extravaganzas were faultless from every performer, as was the unequivocally impressive choreography framing the plot and musical interludes. Particularly skillfully executed were Welcome to the ‘60s and Run and Tell That, blending the vocals seamlessly with demanding, complex choreography that only emphasized the deliberate theatrics of Hairspray. The transitions between scenes were artful to the point where they were barely noticeable, and, of course, any production of Hairspray would never be complete without an array of frankly blinding primary colours and pearlescent fabrics. This production was no different. My eyes had never been exposed to such a concentrated whirlpool of colour, but it did not feel even slightly out of place.

It was neither extravagant nor complicated, but the sincerity and quaintness of this scene is what stuck in my mind after I left Plymouth’s Theatre Royal.

The only critiques that perhaps should be raised remain minor. The character of Penny, intended to be charmingly, and comedically, oblivious, tended towards being more grating than sweet. This, however, is merely a personal thought; the audience continued to chuckle at Penny’s unsuspecting humour. What does continue to stand out, however, was just how unnecessary one particular scene appeared in crafting a coherent plot in the musical. The gym class that did provide a stepping stone for Link Larkin’s character development could have easily been omitted, replete as it was with slightly disjointed humour that did not quite match up to the quality of the rest of the musical. It did not, overall, impact on the pleasure the audience obtained from this production.

Photo: Theatre Royal Plymouth

The mentality change that comes with Corny Collins conviction to ‘put kids on the show who look like the kids who watch the show’ is the only outcome the audience could ever hope for. This musical, light-hearted as some of its content may be, has always been shaded with a very sober social critique; it reflects social transformation, not merely of the prejudiced, but also of the passive, the docile. Aimee Moore’s Amber von Tussle neatly encapsulates this very point in her betrayed confrontation of Link Larkin: ‘Whatever happened to that bland, spineless boy I fell in love with?’ This production, sparsely dotted with trivial blemishes, was unquestionably entertaining and affirming, with that shred of feel-goodness that sometimes an audience just needs.

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