Tuesday 21 November 2017

all shook up by hectic hairspray

Aine O'Connor

Mark Benton has dropped two trouser sizes since he started in this production of Hairspray six months ago. Although widely experienced on stage and TV – he was recently in BBC's Waterloo Road – this is his first ever musical and it's straight in at the deep end for the actor, who describes himself as "rather rotund". The show, derived from John Waters' 1988 film, is high energy and non-stop and pretty much whatever the other cast members have to do, Benton has to do in a fat suit. And a dress.

It's Baltimore in 1962 and generously proportioned Tracy Turnblad (Freya Sutton) dreams of being a dancer on the Corny Collins show. Her dream comes true but the show's producer Velma Von Tussle (Lucy Benjamin) is outraged not only because Tracy defies size convention, but because she has some shocking notions about racial integration, too, thanks to her friendship with Seaweed Stubbs (Marcus Collins). But Velma hasn't banked on Tracy's mother Edna (Benton).

The cast emote, sing and dance their way through well over two hours of what is widely accepted to be one of the most upbeat musicals around. You'd have to be a right old curmudgeon not to enjoy it. On the very first day of rehearsals, they began learning the musical finale You Can't Stop the Beat, a song nicknamed You Can't Stop to Breathe and all are fitter than they've ever been in their lives.

Marcus Collins, X Factor runner-up in 2011, was anxious about taking the role but his manager Gary Barlow encouraged him. "This is my debut in musical theatre and I wanted to do it well," says Collins, "I didn't want to embarrass myself." He's smiley and chatty and as soon as he speaks affirms that, yes, "a Baltimore accent is hard for a Scouser", but he manages well.

"There's a bit of a stigma with musical theatre," he says, "but this is so much harder than anything I've ever done before." He's enjoyed it so much that he would consider moving from a recording career to musical theatre, but immediately after the tour finishes, he is revisiting his hairdressing days to open a salon in Liverpool for people who have had hair loss, like his mother did after treatment for breast cancer. "I want to make a place where people can come and they don't feel the odd one out."

The cast all agree how important it is to gauge the mood and tempo of audiences who range from children to pensioners and whose taste can differ wildly. They enjoy the audience participation and love when people get up to sing and dance along. The role of Edna is unclear, it is a man playing a woman, but it isn't a drag act and it isn't a pantomime dame and, although he found it "disturbingly easy to get into the mindset of a woman", Mark Benton liked audience feedback to see what worked and what didn't.

They each manage their private lives differently. Collins, who laughs this great coy laugh, says his partner works in recruitment and they see each other at weekends. Mark Benton is used to being away from home a lot, but still finds the absence from his children, aged 15, 12 and eight, difficult. "They don't care what you're doing, they just want to see you, so I've made sure they come out quite a lot." They have greatly enjoyed the vision of their father singing and dancing in a dress.

Lucy Benjamin has left her six-year-old daughter at home with her husband and a grandmother and has taken her two-year-old on the road with the other grandmother. All the actors are looking forward to playing Dublin, the three-week stint will be the longest they've played anywhere, because they're expecting great audience enthusiasm. Lucy is especially looking forward to her family being reunited there. "It was one of the things when I was first offered the job, I wondered if it was really doable with a young family. But I thought 'If I don't do it now, I probably never will'." At 43, she is aware of time passing. "If you're not on TV all the time, like I was on EastEnders, people forget who you are and think you've either died or just given up. You have to keep going."

That's because You Can't Stop the Beat. Terrible, sorry.

'Hairspray' is at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin 2 from July 16 to August 3. Tickets from €20 at Ticketmaster

Irish Independent

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