Hairspray the Musical (UK Tour 2017) – Bradford Alhambra Theatre

a hand holding up a blue Hairspray programme in front of red theatre curtains

Expectations: 5/5
Reality: 5/5
Chronic Illness Friendly: 4.9/5

Chronic Illness Friendly Review

Location

Bradford Alhambra Theatre is one of my happy places. I’ve been multiple times in the last few years, and given the city it lives in, you perhaps wouldn’t expect it to be such a gorgeous, gorgeous venue. If you have wobbly legs like me, you should perhaps take into consideration the location of the theatre itself; you’ll find it in the city centre at the bottom of a relatively steep hill with limited car access, meaning it isn’t the easiest place to access by foot, particularly if you have mobility issues.

As it’s a huge theatre with thousands of seats, there are plenty of steps to conquer within the building, with even the stalls being located up a flight of stairs. However, something great about the front of house at the Alhambra is that they aren’t short on places to sit, so you do have the option to take any necessary breaks during your expedition to your seats. The seats in the stalls are particularly roomy so if leg room is a necessity to you, it might be worth splashing out just a little bit more for these prime seats: not only will you have more space for any necessary mobility needs, the view is also fabulous. Find out more about Bradford Alhambra’s accessibility here; I didn’t use my wheelchair this time (I KNOW RIGHT?!), but if I do in the future, I’ll let you know how that goes too.

Oh, and as a side note, we also went to Restaurant 1914 (within the theatre) for the first time, before the show, and they couldn’t have been more accommodating of my severe allergies. So if you’re looking for nice food that’s safe for dietary requirements, it’s definitely one to consider.

Bradford Alhambra theatre brochures and a glass of prosecco on a restaurant table

Content

This show was arguably the most chronic illness-friendly production I’ve seen all year. In terms of special effects, it was a welcome surprise that no strobe lighting was used at any point during the performance. Only coloured and rotating spotlight effects were used, which I didn’t find to be too harsh, and even then they were used only sporadically. If you’re light-sensitive, the only times you need to be wary are during the Dodgeball scene in Act One, and immediately after Without Love and during You Can’t Stop The Beat in Act Two. The fact that I could watch this show without being overly concerned about acquiring a migraine just served to make me love it even more.

In terms of show content, the only red flags I identified were the words ‘spastic’ and ‘retarded’ being used as insults, most likely reflecting the social attitudes at the time the show was set (the 1960s). Aside from this, I believe Hairspray is one of the most accessible and least debilitating productions I’ve seen in recent years. If you have a chronic illness and you’d like to see a show but you’re concerned of whether you can handle it, this could be the one for you. A nice and safe, yet completely immersive and enjoyable experience.

Tickets to the Hairspray UK tour were my main present from my parents for my 23rdbirthday, which was in November. However, I found out that I had these tickets about five months before I was supposed to, due to my parents having to intervene for the third time to stop me from buying them myself. Hairspray is a production that I’ve desperately wanted to see for over a decade now, that I’ve somehow managed to miss during the tours every single time. After falling in love with the movie back in 2007, my best pal Connor and I used to listen to the soundtrack religiously during every single car journey to our ballet training, singing along and choreographing our own backseat dance routines. So that’s a two-hour round trip, 5-6 times a week, that we didn’t get tired of for approximately two years. That’s a LOT of Hairspray, but I have a lot of love for that movie. And now, I have a hell of a lot of love for the musical too.

Everything about Hairspray the Musical was utterly sensational. Steeped in history, it tells of the dreadful prejudice that people who were ‘different’, for all kinds of reasons, had to face just to be considered equals in the 1960s. However, it does so via a song and dance spectacular, resulting in a hilarious and belly-glowingly-lovely tale, of an individual using their influence at their own expense to create social change, that’s impossible not to fall in love with. As I mentioned above, the special effects were relatively toned down in comparison to other shows, and yet this took nothing away from the overall visuals of the performance. The set, costuming and musical arrangement were all on absolute point, combining to form first-class dynamic staging, even before you take the cast into consideration.

selfie of two girls sat in theatre holding up a Hairspray programme and pulling silly faces

And what a cast they were. We saw understudy Tracy Turnblad, Rosie O’Hare, and she was wonderful: she really put her own stamp on her performance of Tracy whilst holding on to all the lovable nuances that make her such a timeless and relatable character to so many people. Gina Murray and Aimee Moore were captivatingly dislikeable as Velma and Amber Von Tussle, with Murray in particular really engaging with the audience and inviting them to despise her and all that she stood for. And as for Brenda Edwardsas Motormouth Maybelle? She was out of this world. During her emotive performance of I Know Where Ive Been, it was almost as if she was daring us audience members to look her in the eye and listen to what she had to say about her harrowing plight as a person of colour. Absolutely stunning.

I think one of the aspects of Hairspray that makes it appeal so much to me is the strong dance element woven into the storyline, as well as this particular production. I was such a fan of Drew McOnie’s stylized choreography and the way he used the space, and it was such a treat to see an ensemble of really strong dancers, many of whom I suspected (and later confirmed) had a ballet background.

Now, whilst we’re on the subject of dance, let us all just take a moment to talk about Layton Williams. I saw Layton as Angel in RENT earlier this year, and actually squealed a bit when I found out he’d been cast as Seaweed in Hairspray. Whilst also a confident and competent singer and actor, it’s Layton’s dancing that really sets him apart. A trained ballet dancer, there’s this athletic yet aesthetic quality about the way he moves that’s difficult to do justice to with words, but mesmerising to watch. He moves freely and lightly and just when you think it can’t get any better, he throws in a cheeky split leap so superb that yours truly nearly goes into coronary heart failure right there in the audience. My God, I just LOVE him. And after I expressed this undying love over Twitter, he replied with a kissy face emoji. So clearly, the feeling is mutual.

Despite the whole performance being one big happy life moment for me, a particular favourite scene of mine was the exchange between Edna and Wilbur Turnblad, Matt Rixon and Norman Pace, which for the life of us we could not figure out whether it was scripted or improvised as a result of something going wrong. The innuendo-laden banter that took place during You’re Timeless To Me had both the audience, and the two characters on stage, in genuine uncontrollable hysterics: the harder the actors tried to conceal the fact that they were laughing, the more belly-achingly hysterical it was for the audience. To me, it seemed too spontaneous to be something that happens during every performance, but if anybody else has seen it and wants to compare, please do let me know! Regardless, the chemistry between Rixon and Pace was absolutely on point, and really did solidify their portrayals as the lovingly virtuous Turnblads.

Hairspray programme opened to blue and pink double spread page reading 'Integration not Segregation'

Seeing the musical version of one of my all-time favourite and critically acclaimed films was so special to me. Whilst it was strange to see variations on a screenplay that at this point I could probably quote by heart, it was absolutely ace to witness the story being brought to life so brilliantly under Paul Kerryson’s direction.

If I was able-bodied and given the opportunity to dance in any musical, it would without a doubt be Hairspray. Congratulations to all the cast and crew on such a spectacular production, and I wholeheartedly recommend experiencing this one for yourself. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to the soundtrack and choreographing my own sassy musical theatre routines in bed for approximately the next forty years. That is all.

Hairspray continues its tour around the UK into 2018. Make sure you find out more and book your tickets; chronic illness sufferers in particular, this one’s for you. If you’d like any further information about its suitability, just let me know and I’ll do my best to help you out.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out my other stagey posts too! Have you seen Hairspray? If so, what did you think?

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