Big hearted Hairspray at the Shaftesbury

“My parents begged me to run away to a circus.”
Wilbur Turnblad

Cast of Hairspray (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Set in an age before people became concerned by the damage done to the ozone layer by aerosols, the Broadway feelgood hit musical Hairspray arrives in London. It comes with a British cast but everything else is per the Broadway original.  

The most amusing purported story about the London production of Hairspray is about a number of Michael Ball fans who have approached the Box Office asking for a refund.  It seems that they have watched the show but report that Ball, the star of many West End musicals, did not make an appearance. Of course, if they have neither read the programme nor have seen the advance publicity, they indeed might not have recognised Michael Ball in a fat suit, wig and dame make up playing Tracy’s mother Edna Turnblad!  

Hairspray is sure of a brilliant run in London.  Its story has the kind of Cinderella warmth of a nice girl with an unconventional body shape getting her handsome prince, and of a more hopeful society for Baltimore’s black community. This simple message of tolerance for otherness is one I cannot fault.

No way would Tracy Turnblad’s feet fit into the delicate glass slippers but Leanne Jones, in her first West End role, could probably dance Cinderella off the dance floor.

So Hairspray scores for reminding those of us, daily exposed to Size Zero models and celebrities in the media, that fat girls can be gorgeous too and for alerting casting agents, that girls like Leanne deserve a shot at the best parts.  

You will also be impressed by the sheer professionalism of the production: beautifully choreographed, energetic dance scenes and bright, lively, designed sets and costumes.  The music too, although I felt it may be a tad derivative, in style if not in actual notes, is an homage to the popular songs of the 1950s with a brilliant beat and sing along melodies. 

I was blown away by Leanne Jones. Her sparkling personality is so endearing, I defy anyone with a heart not to love her from her very first scene. What is amazing is at no point do we feel this sweet, smiley girl is anything except totally sincere. There is no edge of schmaltzy or saccharine.

Michael Ball twinkles away as Edna, Tracy’s mother although comedian Mel Smith is rather more contained as Wilbur, but their big duet, “Timeless to Me,” gets a huge hand.  Elinor Collet as Penny Pingleton makes the transition from geeky girl to beauty after hooking up with Seaweed J Stubbs, played by the very talented Adrian Hansel whose solo “Run and Tell That”  impresses. I liked too Johnnie Fiori’s performance as Momma Motormouth Maybelle and Ben James-Ellis is cute as the teen idol and male lead Link Larkin. The Mowtown type group, the Dynamites are superlative as their number welcomes the advent of the 1960s.  

The sets are gloriously over the top and the heights of big hair seem to defy gravity in the competition scene. When Tracy smarting at the unfairness of the voting in the Miss Hairspray contest regrets the manipulation of a judicial system just to win a contest, the joke is not lost on the British audience.

The Shaftesbury Theatre tends not to get passing trade, stuck as it is in a theatrical no-man’s land at the far end of Shaftesbury Avenue, but with the word about Hairspray being a great show, this Cinderella theatre should be getting good crowds for some time. 

NOTE: A new production of Hairspray starring Michael Ball will open at the Coliseum in June 2021

Link to Hairspray Information

Musical Numbers

Act One

Prologue: Good Morning Baltimore

The Nicest Kids in Town

Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now

I Can Hear the Bells

(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs

The Madison

The Nicest Kids in Town (Reprise)

It Takes Two

Velma’s Revenge

Welcome to the ’60s

Run and Tell That!

Big, Blonde and  Beautiful

Act Two

The Big Dollhouse

Good Morning Baltimore (Reprise)

Timeless to Me

Without Love

I Know Where I’ve Been



You Can’t Stop the Beat

Production Notes


Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan 
Music by Marc Shaiman 
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman 
Based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters 
Directed by Jack O’Brien



Michael Ball

Mel Smith

Leanne Jones

Ben James-Ellis 



Tracie Bennett

Natalie Best

Dermot Canavan

Elinor Collett

Johnnie Fiori

Adrian Hansel

Paul Manuel

Wendy Somerville

Rachael Wooding

Gavin Alex

Fem Belling

Philip Catchpole

Lewis Davies

Helen Dixon

Emma Dodd

Tim Frater

Kate Gillespie

Ewan Gillies

Nicky Griffiths

Jenii Hicks

Holly James

Sandra Marvin

Terel Nugent

Michael Peters

Adam Price

Charlotte Riby

Dominic Shaw

Neil Toon

Michael Vinsen

Zara Warren


Jacqui Zvimba 



Director: Jack O’Brien

Music Director: Nicholas Skilbeck

Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler

Set Design: David Rockwell

Costume Design: William Ivey Long

Lighting Designer: Kenneth Posner

Sound Designer: Steve C Kennedy

Wigs and Hair: Paul Huntley


Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes with an interval

Closed  on 28th March 2010


Shaftesbury Theatre

212 Shaftesbury Avenue

London WC2H 8DP

Tube : Tottenham Court Road

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the

Shaftesbury  Theatre

on 31st October 2007