Touring – reviewed at Milton Keynes Theatre
What a rip-roaringly hilarious, emotional rollercoaster and musical treat of a production. Rendered speechless is not a term often associated with yours truly, especially when it comes to musical theatre. There was also a slight reservation, given the fact that I was a huge fan of Kay Mellor’s Fat Friends the drama when it aired on ITV years ago.
However, the queen of pen(wo)manship and storytelling has done it again. She’s taken the story that many may be familiar with from the television, with a local slimming club and an anticipated wedding at the centre of the action, added songs to which she has written the lyrics (music composed by Nick Lloyd Webber), and has another hit on her hands.
Much of the original story from the ITV series remains, with the chip shop as one of the central locations where Kelly (Jodie Prenger) and her family live and work. Kelly’s mother Betty (Sam Bailey) is a regular at Super Slimmers and is in the running to win an award for losing five stone.
In the class, which is run by over-thinking Lauren (Natalie Anderson) in the church hall, courtesy of Paul (Jonathan Halliwell) we find Alan (Neil Hurst) who spends most of his time and calories at the chip shop and television journalist, Val (Chloe Hart).
They’re amongst many others who are on the quest to lose weight with Julia Fleshman’s (Laura Mansell) diet. Kelly is set to get married to the love of her life, Kevin (Joel Mantague), who’s fairly hopeless, and she’s also flanked by her slim sister Joanne (Rachael Wooding) who doesn’t take much seriously and enjoys ripping the proverbial out of her over-weight sister. With the wedding only six weeks away and the bride’s wedding dress being two sizes too small, Julia spots a great PR opportunity and offers to pay for the dress and indeed the whole wedding if Kelly loses weight with her initiative.
The story is punctuated by a mass of upbeat musical numbers, such as ‘Move It’, ‘Diets are Crap’ and ‘Chocolate’ and ballads which contain the heart, soul and glorious raw emotion that Mellor is famous for putting across. ‘If You Don’t Want to Marry Him’ is one to watch out for, the chemistry between Prenger, Bailey and Kevin Kennedy, who plays Kelly’s dad, Fergus – is a joy to behold and touched my heart.
As you would expect, with a cast featuring so many fantastic performers, this is a strong ensemble to be reckoned with. Prenger is cast perfectly as Kelly, her vocal ability never fails to wow me and she embraces the role with everything she has. I was astounded by Sam Bailey’s performance as Betty, I knew she could sing, however she is also a gifted actress and shone opposite Prenger and Kevin Kennedy. Rachael Wooding is a fire-cracker, what a talent! Not only does she enjoy some superbly raucous one-liners as Joanne, she also plays the role of mousey Pippa, assistant to Julia Fleshman and channelling Mrs Overall! Neil Hurst stood out for all the right reasons as Alan, outstanding vocals and it’s a part he has really made his own. Joel Montague almost blended into the background as hapless Kevin, however in his solo number he was a revelation. Chloe Hart is a performer I’m familiar with and she didn’t disappoint as ballsy Val, I imagine she understudies the role of Kelly brilliantly too. Which coincidentally brings me to Laura Mansell who was in fact the understudy for the role of Julia Fleshman and gave a power-house performance. Natalie Anderson and Jonathan Halliwell were also well cast as would-be lovers, Lauren and Paul – it was such a believable relationship and between them, they carry a variety of exceptional songs.
The set offers a vibrant window into the lives of the Headingly residents and there’s very little movement aside from the interiors of the Wedding Dress shop and the Church. I feel that this is a typical Mellor touch as she has allowed the performances to speak for themselves and set the scene without too much fuss. A few comedy touches in the form of windows (ever so slightly reminiscent of Avenue Q, I thought!) adds just enough dimension to the overall picture.
This is truly a theatrical experience not to be missed, it’s got quick wit and northern humour, a cast who are as passionate about the production as their audience appeared to be and it’s got Mellor’s life-affirming stamp on it, too. Uplifting, joyous and surely should be on target for a West End transfer.