Preview: Hairspray, Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Social issues with a sugar coating
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The Independent Culture

If there were an accolade for the show with the greatest longevity and pliancy in the last 20 years, then perhaps it should go to Hairspray, which opens in the West End this month. Originally a 1988 John Waters film, the musical adaptation laid claim to Broadway in 2002, prompting a triumphant return to the big screen earlier this year.

Set in 1960s America, this latest incarnation features Leanne Jones as Tracy Turnblad, the unhip Baltimore teen whose quest for fame on a local TV show inspires her to lead a fight against racial injustice.

Michael Ball plays the role of Edna, Tracy's mother, while the comedian Mel Smith takes the role of her father, Wilbur. A very British pairing then, and not, perhaps, one we might expect to see on stage at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Yet, as the choreographer Jerry Mitchell attests, this is what makes the show so alluring.

"The thing about the dancing in this show that I love is that you're dealing with real people," he says. "It's not about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Hairspray is about real people who live in a real town. The dancing needs to look authentic. It was one of the first things that John Waters expressed to me: the need to research everything that they did between 1959 and 1962, when there was still an innocence about the way people danced."

The success of Hairspray rests on its capacity to hold the weight of a perennial social issue within the medium of musical theatre, to tread the precarious line between flippancy and sanctity. Mitchell is confident that this balance is achieved, along with a relevance that has maintained its appeal.

"The show is set in 1962, but segregation is something that we deal with every day of our lives," he says. "There's a need for us to come together, and that's a great message to walk out of the theatre with, and it comes at you, to quote another musical, with 'a spoonful of sugar'. You walk out singing and dancing, but thinking: 'I want to live my life more like that.'"

Booking until October next year (020-7379 5399)