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Posts Tagged ‘Nikki Woollaston’

I can’t think of a better way of marking International Women’s Day than visiting a women’s prison to see sixteen of their residents perform in Hairspray, with musical theatre professionals as creatives, musicians and in some of the lead roes. This is the sixth time I’ve witnessed Pimlico Opera’s therapeutic, rehabilitative work, in five different prisons, and each time the standard gets higher. I’ve had a soft spot for this particular show since I saw the original production in preview on Broadway eighteen years ago. I saw it in the West End three times and a new production in Leicester six years ago, but I can honestly say none were as uplifting as Sunday in HMP Bronzefield.

As the prison director reminded us, this year’s International Women’s Day theme is equality, so what better than a show about a feisty teenage girl fighting fat shaming, racism and segregation. Tracy Turnblad is obsessed with the Corney Collins Show, a TV dance programme featuring local teenagers, and infatuated with its lead dancer Link Larkin. When a vacancy arises for the show ensemble, she’s turned down because of her size. She meets up with Seaweed J Stubbs, a black boy whose mom runs a record shop, and becomes friends with his. Black kids aren’t allowed on the show, but are given an occasional ‘negro day’. Tracy is determined to get on the show, to get it integrated, and to get Link, a journey that involves protest and prison.

It’s such a feel-good show, its tongue firmly in its cheek, often hilarious, with great moral messages and so many catchy tunes and clever lyrics and lines, you hardly stop grinning. Nikki Woollaston’s terrific production has bags of energy and a superb sense of fun; her nifty choreography is a particular high. Alex Parker is as fine an MD as you can get and his 12-piece band sounds fantastic. Alex Doige-Green’s set makes great use of the space, on two levels, and Bek Palmer’s costumes are a period delight. Chloe Hart played Tracy in the West End for the last part of its run, before she’d even graduated, and she shines again here with particularly gorgeous vocals. Christopher Howell as mom Edna and Darren Bennett as dad Wilbur are pitch perfect and make a superb double-act. Amongst the rest of the professionals, Andre Fabien Francis and Sam Murphy impress as Seaweed and Corney respectively.

There is much talent amongst the sixteen resident performers. Dhonna Campbell-Grant brought the house down with I Know Where I’ve Been; if she’d been on The Voice, all four chairs would have turned! Mandy Webb played baddie Velma Van Tussle with great confidence, Christine Callaghan was very assured and appropriately bitchy as her daughter Amber and Tiffany Smart was so good as Tracy’s friend Penny I thought she was one of the pros. These are big roles and these women rose to the occasion with great aplomb. If this were a fully professional show, we’d have still been standing and cheering; by any standards, a joyous and uplifting evening.

On until Sunday 15th March. Catch it if you can.

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I’ve been a big supporter of Pimlico Opera’s work in prisons. Before this, there was West Side Story, Guys & Dolls and Carmen in Wandsworth, Sugar in Send and Our House in Belmarsh. I’m drawn by the extraordinary contribution they make to rehabilitation, but the quality of the work is extraordinary too. This one, at HMP High Down, was particularly thrilling.

They use the shortened ‘schools edition’ (which I saw in a school a few years back!). There are fourteen professional actors, two officers and eighteen prisoners, with a full orchestra under MD Dan Jackson (something the current partly synthesised West End production can’t boast!). Lest you think the professionals are anything other than premiere league, Javert has performed the role in the West End production and Fantine won an Olivier Award earlier this year!

Having a cast of 34 and a full orchestra makes the choruses thrilling. Robin Bailey’s Javert, Jeff Nicholson’s Valjean and Rebecca Trehearn’s Fantine are as good as any I’ve seen in the West End (Bailey has played it there and Cameron Mackintosh’s people would do well to sign up the other two!). The prisoners are not confined to the chorus, with roles like Marius being taken by some. Amongst the amateurs, PE instructor / officer Mat Baxter made a fine Enjolras and Irish prisoner Pearce Murray a suitably cheeky Thenardier.

You would expect such a production to be a touch ragged at the edges, but this is more than made up for in Nikki Woollaston’s staging by the sheer spirit and energy of it all, giving people the opportunity to get something positive out of a negative period of their lives. Hopeful and uplifting.

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