Review: Hairspray

Natalia Leaper is Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. Photographs: Mike Darley
8 Nov 2019 @ 9.35 am
| Entertainment

It’s cold. It’s dark. A rising tide of bickering politicians is seeping onto the streets. Where can we go to escape??

The answer, for now at least, is the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. Here a solar flare of feelgood fun is ready to blast away the gloom.

Hairspray by York Light Youth
  • Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York
  • Till Sat 9 November
  • £13-£18
  • More details

Considering that Hairspray is all about a group of energised young people rejecting the injustices of a self-centred older generation, the message is timely.

But mostly we are here to escape our current predicaments via the magical world of the musical. And thanks to a very talented cast, some great musicianship and energy levels off the scale, we can spend a blissful evening basking in the sunny disposition of Tracy Turnblad and the ‘nicest kids in town’.

Laughing and dancing

Loads of energy from the entire company
Based on the John Walters film of the same name, Hairspray has a healthy dose of subversion underlying its terrific tunes.

Teenager Tracy’s one ambition in life is to be part of The Corny Collins Show, the TV dance show beloved by young people in 1960s Baltimore. Her journey from wannabe to celebrity to activist allows the musical to explore the issues of race, body image and youthful rebellion.

The fact it does so while leaving the audience laughing and dancing in their seats is testament to the book, the music – and the cast.

This was a team of performers who could rival York City FC for unbeatability.

Zoe Blenkiron was a terrically ditzy Penny Pingleton, while Maggie Wakeling and Alexis Jagger brought double the snark as mother-daughter ice queens Amber and Velma Von Tussle.

Jeremy Muluka had all the smooth moves and a voice to match as Seaweed J Stubbs, with Ella-Faye Burns a perky pocket rocket Little Inez.

Under Tracy’s influence, Link Larkin begins to realise that there’s is more to life than being a poppy pin-up, and Reuben Lally pitches this transformation with impressive nuance.

Glitzy oomph

A bravura performance from Jess Gardham (second left) as Motormouth Maybelle
Some of the biggest laughs are reserved for Tracy’s parents Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. Adam Ward grew in confidence in the gender-swap role of Edna, adding real glitzy oomph to closing number You Can’t Stop The Beat.

Robin Morgan was a cheerily bonkers Wilbur and his duet with Edna, You’re Timeless To Me, was simply great fun.

A special mention must go to Jess Gardham as Motormouth Maybelle. She brought all her experience, stagecraft and acting chops to this pivotal role, as well as her superb voice.

Her bravura performance clearly inspired confidence across the company.


Snappy tap by the jailbirds and the jailer
And as for Natalia Leaper, who played Tracy? One word: wow. A fantastic voice, brilliant comic timing, joyful exuberance – this was a star turn. Natalia embodies the spirit of Tracy, as unstoppable as the motion of the ocean or the sun in the sky.

The supporting cast were wonderful, particularly in the big dance routines – including a snappy tap number in The Big Dollhouse – kudos to choreographer Hayley Patrick-Copeland. Great credit too to musical director Martin Lay and his band.

Stylish and adaptable set design by David Pumfrey enabled the show to zip along at the breakneck speed set by the pacy direction of Darren Roberts.

Get yourself down to the JRT this week and – in the words of the song – ‘throw off your coat and leave the squares behind’.