“a smart and sensitive script with a magnificent sense of humour”
If you’re at all interested in musical theatre, then Waitress probably needs no introduction. The musical adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name went down a treat on Broadway in 2016, garnering a host of Tony nominations, and its transfer to the West End has been hotly anticipated by many. If the name Waitress doesn’t mean anything to you yet, then here’s a quick summary: it’s an absolute firecracker.
The plot centres on Jenna (Katharine McPhee), a waitress and skilled pie maker at a local diner, whose life is thrown into chaos upon realising she’s fallen pregnant at the hands of her abusive husband, Earl (Peter Hannah). With the support of her two colleagues and friends, Becky (Marisha Wallace) and Dawn (Laura Baldwin), and her new gynaecologist Dr Pomatter (David Hunter), she is forced to make choices for herself and her child that question what true happiness entails and whether motherhood and a career are allowed to thrive in tandem.
Jessie Nelson’s book delivers a beautiful blend of delicious comedy and more complex ruminations on the greyer morality of relationships to mull over – with both Jenna and Becky in unsatisfying relationships, and Dawn desperately seeking love, they make a lot of questionable choices that are ultimately treated with sympathy and understanding by the script, as well as by Diane Paulus’ direction, and Sara Bareilles’ music and lyrics. Certain moments feel like tired tropes being wheeled out, such as Dawn suddenly being seen as more attractive after taking off her glasses and letting her hair down, and the end of the show dismisses some of the nuanced ingredients it was mixing for the sake of a more sickly-sweet conclusion that felt like it was just trying to wrap everything up neatly, but overall Waitress features a smart and sensitive script with a magnificent sense of humour.
Bareilles’ songs amplify this too, with the pop-fuelled score incorporating soaring melodies and beautiful harmonies to punctuate character moments and relationships, and keep the tone and atmosphere firmly pinned to the setting of the American South. Particular highlights are Dawn’s neurotic ‘When He Sees Me’ and the Act One finale ‘Bad Idea’, as well as its reprise in Act Two – the hugely theatrical nature of these songs allowed for slick and dynamic choreography from Lorin Latarro, creating a visual and audial combination that was an absolute joy to consume.
The performances were ceaselessly strong all round. McPhee’s vocals were heavenly in the show’s signature song, ‘She Used to Be Mine’, and Wallace and Hunter brought an enrapturing amount of depth and empathy to their respective characters of Becky and Dr Pomatter. Jack McBrayer also demonstrates his scene-stealing comic prowess as Dawn’s love interest Ogie. Paulus’ direction brings out the best in all the characters and keeps the show moving at a tight pace, allowing everyone’s creativity to shine through when needed.
Waitress is not flawless, and is in no way a revolution for musical theatre, but the restless sense of joy and fun it invokes cannot be overstated – this show is utterly delectable.
“what truly drives this production are the performances”
Initially a stage play, “Little Voice” was turned into the hugely successful fin-de-siècle movie starring Jane Horrocks, but has since been staged and well received enough for it to have become, if not quite a classic, a safe bet on the theatre scene. A victim of its success, there is the danger that audiences will cease to be amazed by the story of the shy, reclusive girl who reveals a powerfully beautiful voice. Tom Latter’s revival at the Park Theatre steers clear of that danger with a production that, even for those who know the story backwards, is as fresh as if it were written yesterday.
Desperately missing her dead father, Little Voice spends her time locked in her bedroom listening to his old record collection and perfecting her striking impersonations of famous singing divas. Her mother, the brash Mari, through sheer neglect does her best to stamp out this talent, until she starts dating small-time, dodgy impresario Ray, who attempts to coax Little Voice out of her hiding place. He sees a ticket to the big time. Mari sees an escape route to a better life. Little Voice just wants a normal life. Surely not everybody can get what they want.
Latter’s direction is punchy, assured and, played out on Jacob Hughes’ simple yet clever split-level design, remains faithful to writer Jim Cartwright’s script. But what truly drives this production are the performances.
Rafaella Hutchinson as Little Voice is a master impersonator, capturing the tones and vocal inflections of Monroe, Bassey, Holiday, Garland, Lee – and even Cher. Hutchinson’s transformation from damaged waif to impassioned cabaret star (and back again) is entirely believable, while she manages to trigger those contrasting emotions within you: you are willing her to break out of her shell and achieve the recognition she so deserves, yet at the same time condemning the exploitation.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Sally George as the relentlessly chattering Mari. A sharp contrast to the silent and fearful Little Voice, yet thanks to George’s captivating performance you can see through Mari’s brash exterior to know that she shares the same insecurities as her daughter. (Interestingly they are also real-life mother and daughter). Her portrayal of Mari is quite magnificent. No pause is left unfilled by Cartwright’s bitingly hilarious text as George delivers her lines with precision timing. Seemingly unaware of the damage she is inflicting, it is all the more heart-wrenching when her daughter finally cracks the hard shell of her self-centredness.
Strong support comes from Linford Johnson as the tongue-tied electrician who woos Little Voice from the rooftops with a nervous uncertainty that belies his faith in her. Kevin McMonagle’s dubious Ray Say pans from leery charm to heartless menace in a riveting performance that lifts his character well out of the pitfall of caricature that is all too easy to fall into with this role. Jamie-Rose Monk as monosyllabic Sadie often threatens to silently steal the show, while Shaun Prendergast takes that threat further with his stand out portrayal of the stand-up Mr Boo: nightclub owner. His club-compere routines are hilarious. While the laughs from the audience are genuine, Prendergast’s own appreciation of his pitch-perfect wise-cracks are a thin veneer that fails to conceal the charred and dying hopes and dreams beneath.
The performances highlight the humour in Jim Cartwright’s dialogue, but here they also accentuate the play’s central themes of neglect, exploitation, grief, loneliness and abuse. When Little Voice herself finally dispenses with her alter-egos and poignantly sings in her own voice we are reminded that this production has its own voice too, which sets it apart from many other versions of this Northern fairy-tale.