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BSMTC Youth's sold-out Hairspray has a hold of Rhodes audiences


By Paul Winspear


Hairspray by Bishop's Stortford Musical Theatre Company Youth at Rhodes (7865289)
Hairspray by Bishop's Stortford Musical Theatre Company Youth at Rhodes (7865289)

Musicals aren't everyone's cup of tea. Unless you happened to catch Hairspray at Rhodes. In which case, it would appear that even lifelong loathers of this particular form of popular entertainment found their lapsang souchong.

The quality of the production was all the more astounding for the fact that it was done not by a touring company of professional, trained performers but by schoolchildren aged 11 to 17 from right here in Bishop's Stortford.

I have seen a good number of Rhodes shows over the years by the adults of Bishop's Stortford Musical Theatre Company – including my all-time favourite, Little Shop of Horrors – but I can't remember having seen one that topped the Hairspray by its Youth wing, which, like any good lacquer, had a hold of five capacity audiences last week.

Admittedly, in Hairspray they had the source material to impress. The musical comedy has been a big fat hit all over the world since it opened on Broadway in 2002, winning eight Tony Awards in the USA in 2003 and four Olivier Awards, from a record-setting 11 nominations, in London in 2008.

But, of course, that's no guarantee of a successful show. The spirit and wit have to be brought from the book to the boards, and the entire BSMTC Youth cast – I counted 45 on stage at one point – did that with enormous and endless energy and verve, accompanied by a live 10-piece orchestra and emboldened by a backstage creative team that encapsulated the era.

In 1962 racially segregated Baltimore, pleasantly plump teenager Tracy Turnblad dreams of dancing on local TV dance show The Corny Collins Show. When she wins a role on it she becomes a celebrity overnight and uses her new-found status to campaign for the show's integration.

Given the production's timing – straddling, as it did, the terrorist atrocity in New Zealand – Hairspray's core theme of racial prejudice (alongside freedom of expression and individuality) and its highlighting of issues such as fat-shaming and discrimination makes it relevant for any period, not just 1960s America.

Hairspray by Bishop's Stortford Musical Theatre Company Youth at Rhodes (7865007)
Hairspray by Bishop's Stortford Musical Theatre Company Youth at Rhodes (7865007)

Herts and Essex High School sixth-former Scarlet Thomas, in her sixth BSMTC Youth year, carried the weight of responsibility as the show's central character, Tracy, with the ease that her obvious talents afford her. Scarlet is simply a starlet.

Ever since John Waters' original 1988 movie, the role of Tracy's personable, plus-sized mother, Edna, who runs a laundry business from home, has been played in drag. Bishop's Stortford College student Harry Belton was comfortable with the dresses, heels and ironing board.

Hairspray by Bishop's Stortford Musical Theatre Company Youth at Rhodes (7865287)
Hairspray by Bishop's Stortford Musical Theatre Company Youth at Rhodes (7865287)

But the scene-stealing star of the show for me was 16-year-old Birchwood boy Matthew Price, who stamped himself on the supporting role of Tracy's father, goofy joke shop owner Wilbur, with a natural comic timing and physicality which made him stand out. His rendition with Edna of witty love song You're Timeless To Me was absolute gold – I did not want it to end.

Hockerill sixth-formers Dewi Chappel, who caught the eye as Corny Collins with his dance movements, and Annabelle Woghiren, who caught the ear as Motormouth Maybelle, the sassy and strong-willed downtown record shop owner, with her performance of I Know Where I've Been, deserve special mention.

I entered the auditorium on opening night last Wednesday flagging after three long working days. I left it two-and-a-half hours later feeling pumped and elated – and that was all down to the hugely talented youngsters on stage, who thoroughly deserved their standing ovation, and the adult trio of director Cath Dickerson, musical director Tom Marlow and choreographer Zoe Blackery.

You Can't Stop the Beat, the entire company sang at the end... It was a shame they had to.


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