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Tracey with Motormouth, Wilbur and Edna and the cast of Hairspray. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

Hairspray

The New Alexandra Theatre

HAIRSPRAY is a fun musical with a heart - and with the nearest the Americans have come to a pantomime dame with Edna Turnblad - and it arrives in Birmingham this week as the Alex’s Christmas cracker.

It has well defined goodies and baddies, a simple cause, miscarriage of justice, enjoyable songs and, after all the trials and tribulations, a happy ending so what more could you ask for as a festive alternative to a traditional panto.

Fun, fluffy and pink, the musical is based on John Waters 1988 film, which in turn is based on real events – racial integration in the USA wastony a edna still a long way away in the 1960s when black and white teenagers could be seen dancing on a popular TV dance and music show – but not together nor on the same show.

Baltimore’s Corny Collins show in the musical is based on the city’s Buddy Deane show where the teenagers were all white – except every other Friday when they were all black, Baltimore’s very own version of Black Fridays I suppose.

Edna was played by long-time collaborator with Waters, Divine. It was the Baltimore-born, drag artist’s penultimate film - he died of an enlarged heart three weeks after the film’s release.

Tony Maudsley as Edna

Donning the frock in the current UK tour is Benidorm’s, or to be more accurate, Kirkby’s Tony Maudsley, a regular on TV and in films, and he was at first reluctant to take on the role. “It’s great, out of the comfort zone for me, I haven’t done musicals theatre for 18 years and I was a bit reluctant at first, through fear mainly, fear about coming back to the theatre, about whether I still the skill to do it.

“But then it all came back to me, it’s like riding a bike I suppose and I have been lucky in one way that I have been working in film and TV for 18 years. It meant and I was never available for theatre though.

“The last theatre I did was The Anniversary with Sheila Hancock in the West End and that was 12 years ago and the last musical was South Pacific 18 years ago with Rusty Lee when we passed through this very theatre.”

We are used to men in frocks every year about this time, oh yes we are and all that, and Maudsley is well aware of that. He said: “I steer as far away from panto damedom as I can. You come on in a dress so you are surfing dangerously close to panto dame as soon as you walk on stage; tpeterhe challenge is to win them back, to not go down that road and to give them some real emotion and hopefully stop them thinking you are a man dressed as a woman and just see the character.”

His return to live theatre has been an experience. “The roar of approval at the end every night nearly blows you off the stage and you go home at night with your ego so inflated . . . it’s wonderful. It’s like a drug.”

Maudsley watched the young talented cast in awe in rehearsals - and watched the dancing with trepidation. “My body has finally taken over from my brain but it has been an absolute nightmare,” he laughed. “I am not a natural dancer”.

Peter Duncan as Wilbur

“You rehearse in trainers and shorts and then four days before it opens they slap a 25lb sequinned dress and high heels on you. A fat suit - and I am a big guy anyway, 20 stone and 6ft 4in - so to have that extra layer was like going to work with a duvet wrapped round me.

“And with the wig on and heels I am about 7ft against Peter is about 4ft 2in.”

Peter is Peter Duncan, ex-Chief Scout and two time Blue Peter Presenter whose wide and varied career started at the National Theatre with Sir Laurence Oliver working with some of the finest acting and directing talent around.

Duncan plays Wilbur, Edna’s husband, it is a hugely varied career which has seen him producing, writing directing and appearing in panto – a family tradition at the Oxford Playhouse  and mosre recently touring in the drama, Birdsong.

He started off as an actor, had two stints in Blue Peter and has recently taken up theatre again. “I am loving it. There is a lot of vitality with a young cast and I am trying to arrange walks and book club and more mature pursuits in down time. But they don’t have downtime!”

Loudest in the show, by several decibels is Brenda Edwards who plays Motormouth Maybelle, the owner of the downtown record store.

Edwards came to notice as the last woman standing in X-factor, 2005, since when she has developed a West End career but this is a role she has always wanted to play witBrendah her emotional rendition of the civil rights anthem I Know Where I've Been one of the show’s spine tingling highlights.

It is the show’s only serious song, a gospel soul power ballad blowing away all the fluff, froth and fun for a few minutes with is message or hope.

She said: “I have always wanted to play the role. As the tour goes on it is getting stronger and stronger. You have to find yourself in the character and be true to the character.

“It is a beautiful song and it is all about delivering the message, when people sit up and see this is what it all about.”

And people are sitting up and appreciating it. “It is really positive when we see people enjoying it and smiling as they are going out going out - it makes us feel good. If we know the audience are loving the show it feeds the energy even more.”

Brenda Edwards as Motorwouth

Edwards, with an easy laugh, reckons she has been blessed with her powerful voice, and if you wanted an example of a voice born for soul, look no further. “I was brought up in up in the gospel church and you can’t get better training that that.”

It is a voice you can hear on her CD Bring it Back, recorded live with her band, a self-penned soul album apart from one Queen track, Another One Bites the Dust.

She loves live performance, and sees every show as different – a different audience every night means a different show every night. “People are paying their money to come and see the show and I want to make sure my performance is the same as it was yesterday, and the day before yesterday, I want people to enjoy the show just as much as I enjoy delivering the performance.

“More people should come to the theatre and enjoy it and there are so many different experiences to be had.”

Leading the baddies (boo and hiss) is Velma Von Tussle, producer of the Corny Collins Show, casual racist and pusher in pursuit of stardom for her daughter Amber – at the expense of Edna’s well-upholstered daughter, Tracy, the herioine, played by Freya Sutton.

Enjoying being the baddie is Claire Sweeney who might have been Lindsay Corkhill in Brookside to telly addicts but is a well-seasoned West End actress and musical theatre star with a host of hit shows under her belt.

She said: “I have done baddy in pantomime but this is the first time I have played a mum on stage and the first time I have been completely evil – and racist! It’s the first time I have played a claireracist, which is pretty shocking, but she is just so shocking that she is funny.

“It’s a good part but I have big shoes to fill, Tracie Bennet won the Olivier for it and she came to our opening night so I was most intimidated, but it is a fun part.

“It is the most talented cast I have ever worked with. A lot of them are young, straight from college and everything is exciting to them and to have that freshness and enthusiasm around you is infectious, it’s great.

Claire Sweeney as arch-baddy Velma Von Tussle

Claire Sweeney has a great fondness for Birmingham – she went out with West Brom keeper Alan Miller for a while so spent a lot of time in and around the city -  and has toured in the Midlands regularly with her own, one woman show, Sex in the Suburbs as well as Educating Rita with Matthew Kelly, Tell Me on a Sunday, September in the Rain, Legally Blonde and so on.

Meanwhile Claire is looking forward to another aspect of the show, or at least the Alex . . . the close proximity of the new Grand Central shopping complex at New Street Station. Even a baddy has to shop . . .

This is a new production with new musical arrangements and new choreography from rising dance star Drew McOnie and the show is directed by Paul Kerryson former artistic director of the celebrated Curve Theatre in Leicester. It runs to 2 January next year.

Roger Clarke

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