Theatre review: Hairspray, Edinburgh

Brenda Edwards knows where she's going, flanked by Freya Sutton, Tony Maudsley and the Hairspray ensemble. Picture: Contributed
Brenda Edwards knows where she's going, flanked by Freya Sutton, Tony Maudsley and the Hairspray ensemble. Picture: Contributed
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It’s 1962 in Baltimore. Hair is big and back-combed, and rock and roll has hit town; but racial segregation is still rife, with the city’s top TV teenage show produced by uptight glamorous racist Velma von Tussle, and her equally blonde and bad-tempered daughter Amber, who naturally wins all the show’s talent awards.

Hairspray | Playhouse, Edinburgh | Rating ****

All that is about to be shaken to its foundations, though, in this gorgeous 2002 stage version, scripted by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, of John Waters’s iconic 1988 film, itself partly based on real-life events. For our chubby and super-gifted heroine Tracy Turnblad may be white herself, and may come from the humblest of backgrounds – her Dad runs a failing joke-shop, and her woman-mountain of a loving mum takes in laundry – but she knows great music when she hears it. With her chum Penny, she soon makes friends with the brilliant black kids she meets in her high school’s “remedial” class, where she has been sent because of her big hair.

In no time, Tracy has crashed the barriers into Velma’s talent show and become a city-wide star; but when she meets her new black friend Seaweed’s mum, Motormouth Maybelle, and decides she has to campaign for full racial integration of the show, things get political and Tracy finds herself in the local women’s pen, waiting longingly for rescue from her gorgeous new boyfriend Link.

To say that all this is captured with terrific drive and good humour in Paul Kerryson’s current touring production, first created at The Curve, Leicester, is to understate the sheer infectious joy of this show. Freya Sutton is an adorable Tracy Turnblad with a gorgeous voice, Tony Maudsley is truly touching in the classic cross-dressing role of her mum Edna, and Claire Sweeney is hilariously evil as the ghastly Velma, finally so outraged by the kids’ 
multi-racial musical brilliance that she ends up clambering through the stalls, demanding assistance from the audience. And if the music is not particularly memorable – bar the show’s famous final anthem, You Can’t Stop The Beat, and a showstopping I Know Where I’ve Been from Brenda Edwards as Maybelle –Drew McOnie’s choreography for this big 25-strong ensemble is terrific throughout, sparkling with life, and drawing us into a story that can’t explain why racial integration in the USA has travelled such a difficult road since the 1960s, but captures one of the moments when the dam broke, and change began to be possible.

• Playhouse, Edinburgh, final performances today; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 29 February until 5 March.