Welcome to the land of Lola

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It’s probably damning Kinky Boots with faint praise to say that it’s one of the better recent-ish musicals adapted from recent-ish films. It might also raise your expectations slightly too far. The 2005 movie about a man who saves his late father’s ailing shoe factory by manufacturing a range of outrageous stiletto boots for drag queens has a lot of very obvious song cues, and they’re duly ticked off in Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper‘s very obvious adaptation. The good news is that unlike, say, Legally Blond, not all of this show feels like it’s been written on autopilot. The bad news is that the parts that do are nearly all in the first twenty minutes.

Once you’ve sat through those first twenty minutes of not-very-interesting exposition, the show kicks up several notches with the entrance of Lola, the fabulous drag queen who inspires Charlie-the-owner-of-the-shoe-factory-that’s-going-down-the-toilet to shift production towards a new demographic. Cyndi Lauper, making her debut as a composer of musicals, has great fun with Lola’s material, the big production numbers are choreographed to the hilt by Jerry Mitchell, and Callum Francis’s Lola is one of those great big star turns you’ll be talking about all the way home.

The trouble is, next to Lola everything else looks a little bit drab. This touring cast features very strong performances from Joel Harper-Jackson as Charlie, from Adam Price as factory foreman George, from Demitri Lampra as Don, the unreconstructed bigot who clashes with Lola on the factory floor and learns a big lesson as a result, and especially from Paula Lane as Lauren, the factory worker with a secret crush on her boss, but only ‘The History of Wrong Guys’, Lauren’s showstopping diatribe about her tendency to fall for inappropriate men, has as much impact as Lola’s big production numbers.

None of it – after the first twenty minutes, anyway – is bad which is to say that the production is excecuted with a great deal of professional competence. Jerry Mitchell’s staging is impressively slick, David Rockwell’s set moves efficiently from a factory in Northampton to a drag club in London to a catwalk in Milan, Kenneth Posner’s lighting is riotously dazzling when it needs to be, and the ensemble is full of sharp, funny performances in the minor roles. You’ll have a good time. You may not want to compare Harvey Fierstein’s stage script too closely with Tim Firth and Jeff Deane’s screenplay for the film, though, because Fierstein’s adaptation is sometimes numbingly simplistic. Nearly all of the nuance is gone from the relationship between Charlie and Lola, to the point where the plot simply doesn’t make sense: in the film, Charlie doesn’t entirely overcome his prejudices until the very end, whereas Fierstein has Charlie accepting Lola for who he is from the beginning and then berating Lola for not being properly masculine halfway through Act Two. Nicola, Charlie’s upwardly-mobile fiancée, is reduced to a boo-hiss villain. Fierstein almost completely glosses over the question of Lola’s sexuality, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions; the screenplay makes Lola/Simon unequivocally straight, which is a far more interesting choice in terms of confronting the audience’s preconceptions about drag performers. Throughout, the musical replaces nearly all of the film’s grit with glitter, and the film didn’t have that much grit to begin with. The result is a show that is great fun, at least once you’ve sat through those first twenty minutes, but which could have been a great deal more than that.

Callum Francis’s star turn as Lola, though, is something to see. He’s the real thing: a fabulous singer, superb comic timing, star presence, and he manages to put back a lot of the emotional heft Harvey Fierstein has so carefully filleted out of the book. He’s more than worth the cost of the ticket, and the show offers a thoroughly entertaining night out as long as you don’t think too hard about what you’re watching. You do, at least, get some sense of what attracted the show’s creators to this source material – again, unlike Legally Blonde – and while it’s a pity that sense of inspiration (very) obviously did not extend to every character or every element of the plot, Lola’s numbers are good enough that they more than compensate for the deficiencies in the writing elsewhere. Don’t go expecting a “great musical”, though. Whenever Francis is onstage, this is great entertainment – but that’s all.

Illyria, W11

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Take one Shakespeare comedy. Fillet out most of the poetry, throw in an eclectic set of songs by Shaina Taub, add a brightly-coloured Notting Hill streetscape (by Rob Jones), a thirty-member community chorus, a fabulous set of singing voices from the leading actors, a great big tap number for Malvolio, chicken-and-pepper canapés, confetti guns, and a white van, and you get… this. A triumphant, joyous, thoroughly entertaining show that puts a smile on your face before the lights go down and keeps it there until long after you’ve left the theatre.

I suppose you could justifiably criticise it for being Shakespeare-lite, but it’s so much fun that to do so would be churlish. Slimming the text down to an hour and forty minutes (no interval) and making room for Taub’s wonderful score means you’ll be disappointed if you came to hear Shakespeare’s poetry, but it’s not as if you’ll have to wait more than about ten minutes before somebody else does Twelfth Night, so get over it. The plot – I don’t need to run through it here, do I? – is entirely present and correct, but delivered at a run, the better to make room for those songs. There’s a shipwreck, mistaken identity, pranks, parallel love stories and all the rest of it, but not the undercurrent of grief that can underpin less sunny interpretations of the text. Purists might hyperventilate; everybody else will be too busy having a good time.

What’s surprising here is how well Kwame Kwei-Armah and Taub’s adaptation, which premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 2016 (and was produced there again this past summer) in a production that evoked New Orleans, adapts to London, where it arrives as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first production as artistic director of the Young Vic. Taub’s score, which cleverly blends soul, R&B, pop, and golden-age-of-Broadway pastiche into a kind of theatrical tossed salad, sits very well indeed in present-day Notting Hill, and the area’s colourful streetscapes are beautifully recreated by Rob Jones on the Young Vic’s wide stage. It’s a joy to see the community chorus, whose members range from teenagers to people who – let’s put this delicately – have clearly had their bus pass for some time – kicking up their heels dancing Lizzi Gee’s artfully artless choreography and obviously having the time of their lives, and you can’t see the join between the ensemble and the (Equity) principal cast.

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That’s high praise, because the principal performances are faultless. Gabrielle Brooks is a fine, feisty Viola. Natalie Dew brings a lovely sweetness to Olivia, and her duet with Brooks is splendidly sung. Gerard Carey’s Malvolio is a comic tour-de-force wrapped in yellow lycra. Melissa Allen’s Feste combines a thrilling voice with drop-dead timing. Everybody is funny, the singing is gorgeous, the cast and chorus obviously love both each other and the material, and by the time the various revelations and weddings roll around in the final scene you’ll be experiencing as pure a theatrical high as you’ll get this year.

Simply, this show works. You lose, as I said, a lot of Shakespeare’s poetry, but it’s a fair exchange: this is a glorious, joyful celebration of theatre, of music, of diversity, of London. As an opening production from Kwame Kwei-Armah, it’s quite a calling card. Set against the increasingly nasty divisiveness in this country’s political discourse, particularly surrounding multiculturalism, it’s also a very definite (and very welcome) statement: a celebration of what is great about modern Britain at a time when we see far too many reminders of what isn’t, in which Kwei-Armah and his cast remind us that diversity and inclusiveness are strengths without ever delivering a lecture. The message is there if you look for it, but nobody ever preaches – which is as it should be when the message is something that really should go without saying.