Edna's back… and the world feels like a sunnier, funnier place. She looks and sounds a bit like Michael Ball, but hey why not: in this crazy, candy-coloured version of 1960s Baltimore anything is possible: posters of impossibly glamorous girl groups suddenly burst into life, unremarkable lives are transformed by the power of kindness and "a fresh new ‘do", and the unlikeliest of pairings end up being love's young dream. Yes, Hairspray has exploded back into the West End in a rainbow cascade of flamboyant characters, fabulous songs, big laughs, bigger hair, and enough electric energy to power the National grid. It has never appeared more irresistible than it does in this sumptuous remounting of Jack O'Brien's Broadway staging, and it's high octane, slightly off-kilter bonhomie has seldom felt so sweetly essential as it does at this point in time.
It is hard to imagine a show more suited to ushering in a post-pandemic era of lavish crowd-pleasing theatre. Not just because it's great entertainment, although it certainly is; nor even because, after lengthy original Broadway and West End runs in the Noughties, countless touring productions, a starry film version and well received TV presentation, Hairspray can authentically lay claim to being a modern musical classic. With its powerful anti-racial segregation stance and open-hearted but never preachy emphasis on tolerance, the show also now stands more vital and urgent than ever before in a landscape changed, hopefully forever, within the last 18 months by the Black Lives Matter movement. The mid-show standing ovation – a rarity in the West End – that greets Marisha Wallace's goosebump-inducing rendition of the rousing anthem "I Know Where I've Been" is testimony to this: more than just an exhilarated response to a remarkable performance, it feels like a heartfelt demonstration of an audience's collective desire to stand up and be counted.
It's a magical moment, one of many in a show that, possibly as a result of the rotten 15 or so months most people have endured recently, feels a lot more moving as well as joyous than it did first time around. Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's flat-out hilarious book preserves much of the edgy subversiveness of the original John Waters screenplay, but it's the underlying kindness and warmth that really hits home viewed through 2021 eyes. For all their eccentricity, the genuine love between the Turnblad family members – Michael Ball's corpulent laundress Edna, Les Dennis as her joke-shop proprietor spouse Wilbur and Lizzie Bea's delightful food-obsessed dancing teen Tracy – is a beautiful thing to see.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's wondrous score, pastiches of 1960s pop sounds that are every bit as catchy and boppy as the real thing albeit with devastatingly witty lyrics, contains nary a dud, and reaches its apotheosis in the soaring finale "You Can't Stop The Beat" which achieves the kind of endorphin-popping joy that most other musicals can only dream about. Massively integral to this is Jerry Mitchell's tight, dynamic choreography delivered by a sensational company clad in the gorgeous costume and wig creations of William Ivey Long and Richard Mawbey respectively.
Both aesthetically and physically, the show resembles a cartoon made flesh, and that level of inspired, caffeinated lunacy permeates through all the lead performances. Lizzie Bea is a clarion-voiced, endlessly lovable whirlwind of energy and pathos as our heroine Tracy. Ball (returning to Edna after 14 years) and Dennis are utterly charming together, succeeding in making this outlandish couple into figures of genuine affection, and there are invaluable contributions from Michael Vinsen as a toothsome TV host, Georgia Anderson as Tracy's spiteful arch-nemesis, Mari McGinlay as a winsomely daffy best friend, and Jonny Amies and Ashley Samuels as a pair of adorable all-singing, all-dancing love interests.
Rita Simons raises glamorous nastiness to an art form as purring, bigoted TV producer Velma Von Tussle, one stiletto on the production floor, the other firmly embedded in Tracy's back, and Marisha Wallace is literally breathtaking as her benign rival, the gloriously named Motormouth Maybelle. Dermot Canavan and Lori Haley Fox achieve brilliant miracles of comic transformation as a variety of authority figures. There just isn't a weak link in this magnificent company.
Ultimately, you'd have to be a pretty miserable soul not to enjoy this uplifting belter of a musical. It's a little like being force fed vitamins. Truly life-enhancing: great fun but so much more. Welcome back Edna, we needed you!