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Review round-up: Did critics have a Ball at Hairspray?

The show returned to the West End – initially playing to socially distanced crowds

The cast of Hairspray
© Tristram Kenton

Hairspray has made an extravagant return to the West End – and here's what critics had to say!


Alun Hood, WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★

"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. Michael Ball (returning to Edna after 14 years) and Les 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."

"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 Turnblad, we needed you!"


The cast of Hairspray
© Tristram Kenton


Clive Davis, The Times, ★★★★★

"You really would have to be in a terminal state of humourlessness not to enjoy the production by Jack O'Brien, part of the original Broadway team. I don't mind admitting that I'm wary of camp, which so often uses excess and extravagance as a way of dressing up mediocrity. Hairspray is in a different league. The songs rock with genuine bluesy energy, Jerry Mitchell's choreography is slick yet soulful, and the racial theme is handled with surprising deftness."

"Marc Shaiman's music leans towards the self-consciously tinny at first, but gathers weight and momentum as the score digs deeper into rhythm and blues. The lyrics — co-written with Scott Wittman — are sharp and knowing. We're always aware of the gulf between white-bread America and the black music and dance that are its engine room. Marisha Wallace, as soul mother Motormouth Maybelle, nails the anthemic "I Know Where I've Been" (shades of Sam Cooke) and there's a glorious moment where the ensemble channel the hi-de-ho spirit of Cab Calloway."


Claire Allfree, The Telegraph, ★★★★

"Hairspray may be a bubblegum-pink sherbet-dip of a show, but it's also an incandescent doo-wop hymn to the emerging teen culture of the 1960s, with youngsters intoxicated by the new sounds of black Motown, and desperate to throw off the shackles of propriety and dance. And when O'Brien's production dances, it dances. Jerry Mitchell's pin-sharp choreography, fanning out against the pastel-coloured pop-up sets, is first-class."

"Lines such as "Every day's a white day" still have the power to sting. And in the end, Hairspray transcends its political telegraphing, and the occasional plot longueur, through its sheer generosity of spirit. O'Brien's production both inhabits a dreamy, cynicism-free utopia and responds with every sinew to the unifying, universal call of the dance. As I say: it's irresistible."


Michael Vinsen as Corny Collins and company
© Tristram Kenton


Matt Hemley, The Stage, ★★★★

"O'Brien directs a slick, colourful production, with Jerry Mitchell's choreography filling the stage and David Rockwell's cartoon cut-out set adding a playfulness.

"Occasionally the words get swallowed up – possibly due to the vastness of the space – and there are moments when the energy seems to drop, but there's no denying the fun that Hairspray offers. With its witty and genuinely funny book from Thomas Meehan and excellent, catchy numbers from writing duo Shaiman and Wittman, it might just be the tonic that we all need right now."



Jessie Thompson, Evening Standard, ★★★

"I'd love to herald this sweet, well-meaning show as the big, bombastic return of musical theatre to the West End. It has some great numbers and some stand-out performances (Marisha Wallace, given a standing ovation on press night, needs her own show, stat), but it sometimes feels functional and the plot is dated. It all feels a bit ‘white people solve racism' — not to mention the eyebrow-raising lyric "now I've tasted chocolate and I'm never going back" — and Tracy's trajectory is too neat and tidy."

"But there's something giddy-making about seeing big wigs, costumes and dance routines again. It feels churlish to complain too much about a show where a befrocked Ball emerges from a giant can of hairspray, and Wallace is a knock-out. Shantay, Hairspray stays."

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