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The most fun you will find on the London stage right now

TIM WALKER on an ebullient show that creates an emotional occasion

Michael Ball as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray - Credit: ©Tristram Kenton

Hairspray

London Coliseum, to September 29

****

It used to be the fashion to make fun of the late Lord Attenborough for blubbing. I now understand it comes sometimes with age as we see life with a greater sense of perspective. The tears come as often from joy as they do sorrow.

At the end of the first night of Hairspray, Michael Ball still in drag as Edna Turnblad, stepped forward to make a heartfelt impromptu speech. He said how wonderful it was to hear applause again. That had quite a few of us blubbing behind our masks.

Hairspray is a funny old show – probably best known as John Waters’ film in which Divine played Edna – that is on one level just an excuse to belt out a few big numbers, wear outlandish costumes and wigs and have a blast. On another, with its early 1960s setting, it has some pertinent things to say about racism since the talent show its wannabe star Tracy Turnblad (Lizzie Bea on fine form) wants to appear on is a segregated show.

Kit Larkin, the show-within-a-show’s young star played by Jonny Amies, has to somehow reconcile making a stand against racism with what’s in the best interests of his career, and, in the process, falls for Tracy for having the strength to do what’s right.

It’s a great ensemble, but Ball predictably shines as Tracy’s big-hearted mum and there’s a touching chemistry between him and Les Dennis as ‘her’ long-suffering husband Wilbur. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s script is witty. Amies, as Larkin, complains at one point how “those girls were all over me; I don’t know how Rock Hudson stands it”. This is a clever young actor with a gift for comedy.

Jack O’Brien directs with gusto and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is, as ever, flawless. There’s no more fun to be had on the London stage right now.