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Reviewed: Hairspray at Kilworth House Theatre

The iconic musical is playing in the open air auditorium until August 6, 2023.

The stage for Hairspray at Kilworth House Theatre.
The stage for Hairspray at Kilworth House Theatre.

I would consider myself a veteran of Kilworth House Theatre - I saw their second ever production in 2008 (Oklahoma!), and have attended nine other productions over the years since. What does being a veteran involve? Well, chiefly, I knew to take my big coat despite it being the middle of July.

If you've never been to Kilworth House Theatre before, it's a unique experience. Access from the car park to the auditorium requires a walk along a picturesque wooden bridge, framed by a tunnel of foliage, leading to a woodland clearing where magic happens.

This was my first time attending this theatre alone - arguably an error, as it's an overtly romantic night out - but I would always recommend it to couples as a summer date idea. It offers an exceptionally high standard of theatre in a beautiful setting, with the option for a pre-show picnic in the grounds of a country house. That's an easy win, fellas - take note!

Since it's original production (Pirates of Penzance) in 2007, the theatre has staged two professional productions per summer ever since (with a slight interruption between 2020 and 2021). Unusually, this summer's production is their only one, but it's a belter.

The company perform "You can't stop the beat..."
"You can't stop the beat..." (Photo by John Fox)

Hairspray has become a musical theatre staple - it's barely left the West End since opening in 2008, most recently being revived in 2021 (and Michael Ball seems unable to keep away for more than a couple of years at a time, presumably one of his favourite ever roles).

Based on John Water's 1988 film of the same name, Hairspray transports us to Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1962. It's a difficult time for race relations in the United States, with much of the country still segregated. It tells the story of unconventional hero Tracey Turnblad, who's love of cross-cultural dance styles leads to her helping breakdown barriers on her favourite TV programme, The Corny Collins Show. Despite the weighty importance of the themes involved, it's an incredibly optimistic show, filled with upbeat songs and likeable characters.

Perhaps it's most famous number, "You Can't Stop The Beat", has become so established as the show's hit song, that it's easy to forget how good the entire soundtrack is. Pound for pound, Hairspray might have more big numbers than any other musical, including "Good Morning Baltimore", "The Nicest Kids in Town", "I Can Hear The Bells", "Welcome to the 60's", and "Without Love" to name but a few. For the whole first half I was struck by how relentlessly brilliant the songs are. Banger after banger.

I'm perhaps more familiar with the musical's movie version than the stage version, so I was very surprised to discover that one of my favourite songs, Link Larkin's "Ladies' Choice", was an original song for the movie, and does not exist on stage! So there we go - I learned something new because of this musical!

Though I'm yet to address what I think might actually be my favourite musical theatre song of all. The goosebump-inducing "I Know Where I've Been", sung here to perfection by Ayesha Maynard as Motormouth Maybelle. I love it because it's so unlike anything else in the show, allowing it to stand out in a production filled with outstanding numbers. The subject matter packs an emotional wallop, and when the entire cast sing the final chorus directly to the audience, you can't help but feel moved. I don't think there's anything else like it.

Hairspray has two unique casting traditions: Protagonist Tracey is always played by a relative unknown (a chance for a new star to make their mark), and her mother Edna is always played by a man (such as Michael Ball, John Travolta, Harvey Fierstein, etc).

The company of Hairspray.
The company of Hairspray. (Photo by John Fox)

Director and choreographer, Lee Proud, has continued both here, with Charlotte-Hannah Jones providing a brilliant Tracey - note perfect in singing, never off-beat in dancing, and always upbeat in performance.

Meanwhile Michael J Batchelor's Edna is an obvious show-stealer. The tactical use of his deep male voice - punctuating his otherwise flawless female performance - tickled the audience throughout. A seemingly off-script, character-breaking exchange with Edna's husband Wilbur (Steven Serlin) - which I suspect was actually very-tightly-rehearsed improv - was a stand out moment that had the sell-out audience in stitches.

Michael J Batchelor as Edna and Steven Sterling as Wilbur.
Michael J Batchelor as Edna and Steven Sterling as Wilbur. (Photo by John Fox)

Lee Proud has staged this musical very simply - there's not much in the way of set, with only a few key items such as beds or school desks coming on and off - meaning there's plenty of space for dancing. Proud's choreography is clever, because while it's visually impressive when the ensemble dance together, you feel that it's simple enough that you could easily get up and join in. Experience to the contrary and a long-standing court-order persuaded me not to, but it all adds to the show's infectiousness.

The supporting cast are fantastic throughout with Seaweed J Stubbs, (played by Nay-Nay) a particular stand out. There's also great characterisation for Penny Pingleton (Biancha Szynal), and charm and charisma from Corny Collins (Liam Doyle) and Link Larkin (Alex Lodge).

Villainous mother-daughter duo, Velma and Amber Von Tussle (Jenny Gayner and Holly Willock) also handle their roles with a deft-touch - they are the pro-segregation characters, a tricky stance to portray in this day and age. Yet, surprisingly, they didn't receive any pantomime boos during the bows - so well performed are their parts.

Charlotte-Hannah Jones as Tracey Turnblad.
Charlotte-Hannah Jones as Tracey Turnblad. (Photo by John Fox)

It's a musical that is still quite happy to shock you - it's quite surprising to hear some of the racial language spoken by white actors in 2023, even though it's appropriate to the story. There is also one non-racial derogatory word that's used, which I personally feel could've been cut, as it doesn't add anything to the story, nor would its removal hinder it. But it depends how rigidly you want to stick to the standards of the time period.

On the whole, this is another runaway success for Kilworth House Theatre, and if you have the chance to see this production, you'll enjoy a thoroughly uplifting, joy-filled evening in Leicestershire's most incomparable theatre.


Hairspray is at Kilworth House Theatre, North Kilworth, until August 6, 2023, followed by a summer programme of music performances and tribute acts.


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