Jessie Nelson, Sara Bareilles
Opera House, Manchester
November 8-20, 2021; 2hr 40min inc
There is a science to baking. Combine sugar, butter, flour and eggs in the right amounts and bake at the right heat for the right period of time and you get pastry or cake.
Theatre is not a science. A cult movie adapted into a musical by a multiple Grammy-nominated songwriter and then taken on tour with an X-Factor finalist and a boy-band star could be a hit. But there are no guarantees.
Waitress is certainly full of flavour, but some of the ingredients taste a little past their best.
The show, first performed on Broadway in 2016, tells the tale of put-upon piemaker Jenna (Lucie Jones) who dreams of leaving her abusive husband - and also about baking. Flashbacks to kitchen lessons with her Mum and daydreams of ludicrously-inventive pie recipes she names after moments in her life.
Those dreams, however, are rudely interrupted by her own "bun in the oven". The question is: could a pie-making contest with a big-money prize - and a fling with her gynaecologist - put Jenna’s escape strategy back on track?
The pretty predictable plot unfolds on an inventive set, albeit one clearly designed on a budget, by Scott Pask. We’re quickly transported from Joe’s Pie Diner to Jenna’s dingy flat via a doctor's surgery and busy kitchen with just a few twists of the scenery. Piles of pies fly across the stage and there’s plenty of pouring of beaten eggs and blowing of flour to give us a real sense of place.
Unsurprisingly, though, our waitress for the evening is the star of the show. When she’s on set, you never want to take your eyes off Jones, who acts every beat of the music and every syllable of the dialogue perfectly.
Jones and the cast are helped by some dreamingly beautiful choreography from Lorin Latarro. Small touches, like a repeated motif of a brushed cheek, or the way hyper-realistic moves are naturally combined with props being brought on and off, are masterful. A gorgeously expressive dance towards the end of the second act could just as easily be found in a horror movie as a musical.
Although the plot contrivances are romantic, it’s Jenna’s friendships that are the beating heart of this show. Diner pals Becky (Sandra Marvin) and Dawn (Evelyn Hoskins) are the cliched "sassy one" and "quirky one", but they’re still great fun to watch. George Crawford is hilarious as Ogie – the phrase "the British are coming" will never be the same again - and Michael Starke is heart-breaking as gruff-but-genuine Joe. Starke’s performance of Take It from an Old Man brings a tear to the eye.
Busted star Matt Willis feels a bit lost as Dr Pomatter, however. He’s certainly not helped by having to play a character with pretty questionable objectives, but there’s something missing from the plodding delivery too.
The whole ensemble is joined on stage by a plaid shirt-clad band, whose members seem pretty uninterested In the goings-on in front of them and are placed so far out of the way that much of the audience won’t have even realised they were there. Which is a shame.
The music might be as light and airy as one of Jenna’s meringue pies, but it’s also largely forgettable. But the fabulous showstopper - She Used to Be Mine (performed incredibly by Jones) - might be worth the ticket price alone.
Waitress has developed a devoted following thanks to its empowering lead character and its all-female writing and directing team. There’s certainly a great recipe on paper here, but the proof is in the pudding - and this touring version doesn’t quite deliver.