Touring – reviewed at Milton Keynes Theatre
Anyone who has tried to lose a few pounds – and failed – will empathise with Betty, Kelly and Alan, the larger-than-life members of Headingly Super Slimmers who just can’t resist chip butties, doughnuts, and cake. The high carb, supersize show, Fat Friends the Musical, arrived at Milton Keynes Theatre for a week-long bunfest of fun and gluttony.
Kay Mellor scored a big hit with the original TV version 18 years ago. It’s a mystery why it has taken so long to be turned into a stage show because this is one XXL musical not to be missed. I chomped down my Weight Watchers ready meal, forgot
about my own pathetic efforts to slim, and went for a night out with Mellor’s musical.
Body image, fat-shaming and obesity is in the news this week with government health officials warning the public, yet again, that we must all cut down. Smaller portions, healthy eating, low-fat, blah…blah… We all know the mantra – but do we listen?
“Diets are crap!” sings bride-to-be and former yo-yo dieter Kelly (ain’t that the truth). “What the hell happened?” she asks, staring at her voluptuous self in the mirror. “Chips” comes the cynical reply from her skinny younger sister, Joanne.
Kelly’s mum, Betty, is in the running to win a £5,000 prize for the most inspired weight-loss story. Her and Fergus, who run Big & Battered, the local chippy, certainly need the cash as business has taken a nosedive since people turned away from traditional cod and chips to healthier eating. Worse, Kelly has set her heart on a £2,000 fairytale wedding dress – if only she could get into it.
Step forward ambitious slimming club boss, Julia Fleshman, who promises to pay for the dress and wedding if the Rubensque Kelly, who loves her curves almost as much as her fiance Kevin, can lose enough weight in six weeks to fit in the dress.
Outwardly, like so much of Kay Mellor’s work, Fat Friends the Musical presents itself as a fun show with colourful sets, costumes, characters and plot.
But underneath its bubbly exterior is a far more pertinent message about recognising who we are and who we’re comfortable to be, with a side-order of vitriol for the whole industry built around dieting.
Nick Lloyd Webber’s tunes are upbeat and Mellor’s insightful lyrics that are spot on, ranging from hilarious and playful to sincere and moving.
She speaks for every one of us who has wobbled on a diet or been cajoled into a slimming club or simply been affected by the jealousy, envy and spite of others slimmer or fatter than ourselves.
We’re all put under so much pressure to conform. Every form of media relentlessly bombards us with advice on how to slim, to eat healthily, losing pounds, and to fit a perceived slim bodyshape.
Every day we’re told not to eat this, that or the other. It’s no wonder that so many of us have become paranoid and stressed, with eating, once a pleasure, now a chore.
Casting for the show is a convoluted minefield with some stars appearing at some venues and not others.
Last night, former cricketer Freddie Flintoff was back in the pavilion and ex-Atomic Kitten Natasha Hamilton was resting.
But the Milton Keynes cast is a delight, if somewhat perverse. Without exception, every performance is a Knickerbocker Glory with extra squirty cream.
X Factor winner, and former prison officer, Sam Bailey, 40, plays the needlessly frumpy Betty (no need to look so dour, girl!) while her gorgeous, bubbly daughter, Kelly, is another reality show winner, Jodie Prenger who, in real life, is just two years younger.
They are joined by former Corrie star, Kevin Kennedy, as a harassed-looking Fergus, and a vocally strong Joel Montague as Kelly’s hapless, jobless clod of a fiance, Kevin.
Rachel Wooding is a treat as both the sarky Joanne who delights in winding up her big sister, and Julia’s silent but deadly sidekick, Pippa.
Adding pathos to the story is Neil Hurst’s Alan who faces losing his wife unless he loses weight.
One of the funniest scenes is when Alan is the first to hit the scales at the club’s weekly weigh-in. He strips down, stands on one-foot, on the edge of the scales, anything not to face the bitter truth that late night chips and beer have had an effect.
Adding more weight to the plot, is a side story about slimming club leader, the super skinny and Jewish Lauren (Natalie Anderson) trying to lose a couple of pounds, gain her self esteem and overcome religious differences to find love with the local vicar.
The show, at over two hours, is a little flabby in the middle and could lose a scene or two, but, overall it’s a heart-warming, lively and entertaining production that will make you want to go home and gorge a big bowl of salted caramel ice cream with chocolate sprinkles…or, in my case, an apple. C’est la vie.