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Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan

Mark Goucher and Matthew Gale

Palace Theatre, Manchester

October 25-30, returning November 8-13; 2hr 30min

Maybelle and Tracy gets things moving in Hairspray the Musical in Manchester
Maybelle and Tracy gets things moving in Hairspray the Musical in Manchester

Welcome to the sixties!

So sings Tracy Turnblad to her mother in Hairspray, the energetic musical paean to a decade of progress and ideals-led activism intent on changing the world. Hairspray suggests you can do this while having fun and without damaging your hairstyle. You can even nudge your parents towards change.

In the flood of post-pandemic musical revivals, Hairspray must be one of the most welcome. It’s familiar and accessible, dotted with stage-only nuances unavailable via the 2007 ubiquitous movie DVD, and its sincere championing of integration, acceptance and rights for all resonates today, permeated by a level of optimism true to the youthful spirit of the times, and very welcome to audiences returning to the joy of musical theatre.

Tracy, a larger-than-life teenager, dreams of joining The Council, a group of teenagers selected for their appeal to become aspirational models by dancing on TV’s Corny Collins Show. Tracy’s size is an inhibitor as she faces cruel put-downs from her peers alongside her mother’s protective discouragement of ambition.

Needless to say, Tracy’s personality and dance ability triumphs: she both finds love and successfully champions a major battle of the age: racial integration.

The original Hairspray, a cult film written and directed by John Waters, was adapted to this mainstream award-winning musical, later adapted for the second, widely-seen film musical.

This current touring production fits the bill, offering feelgood entertainment with soul. There are few limitations: the sets are basic, designed to fit multiple venues, but they do the job, and the occasional economical use of newsreels of the times is a wise reminder of the injustices and struggles of the period. A few amplification problems harshen some voices and under-project others.

Tracy’s familiar opening number, Good Morning Baltimore introduces newcomer Katie Brace, whose energy and enthusiasm throughout reflects the times. I really couldn’t take to the early-scenes costumes with their not-quite-garish colours. I’m hoping that was the point. But every aspect of the show picks up once Tracy joins Corny Collins on TV. Again, the point.

Crowd-pleasing songs such as I Can Hear the Bells, Welcome to the Sixties and the triumphant You Can’t Stop the Beat are superbly crafted, using the rhythms, instrumentation and structure of 60s pop music blended towards show tunes that galvanise cast and audience alike.

The cast is superb. It’s a triumph for the likeable and energetic Katie Brace in her first major role. Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle recovers from earlier microphone harshness with a stand-out soulful performance of I Know Where I’ve Been. Tracy’s parents, Edna and Wilbur, are played by Alex Bourne and Norman Pace with commanding stage presence and great comic timing, their throw-back song and dance number, (You’re) Timeless to Me, proving a gently paced highlight of precision with feeling.

Director Paul Kerryson strengthens the contrasts within the show and retains its accessibility: the audience feels they could join in all the ensemble numbers.

It’s a very welcome return to theatre for me.

Info and tickets here, and read this about ATG's stringent anti-Covid measures before buying tickets.


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