A fantastic show to reopen New Wimbledon Theatre. Jenny Booth reviews…
Hurrah! New Wimbledon Theatre has finally reopened after lying dark for a year. As curtain up neared at last night’s gala reopening, the pavement on Wimbledon Broadway was thronged with what appeared to be every famous face in the area, taking turns to be papped on the red carpet. The auditorium was full, and in honour of the show – Waitress, a musical whose plot revolves around baking pies – commemorative tea-towels had been draped over the red velvet seat backs as gifts for the audience. (At least, I hope they were gifts, as I stowed one away in my bag.)
With plenty of fantasy to charm, grit to bring a tear to the eye, a hefty sprinkle of absurdity and lashings of southern sass, Waitress is itself a pretty delicious concoction. Our heroine Jenna (Lucie Jones), a genius at making pies, waitresses at Joe’s Pie Diner alongside Becky and Dawn, two other tough southern belles – think Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. As the story begins Jenna discovers she has got a bun in the oven (their joke, not mine). Her rotten husband Earl (Tamlyn Henderson) barges in and we see at once why being pregnant is a disaster because he pockets Jenna’s tips, mocks her baking and threatens to make her quit her job. Most of the rest of the show depicts Jenna fantasising about ways to escape – by concocting the perfect pie, e.g., The Key (Lime) To Happiness Pie, winning a national pie-baking contest, and saving up to run away from Earl. At the same time Jenna is finding funny but reprehensible consolation in the arms of her hunky gynaecologist, Dr Pomatter (Matt Willis, from Busted). It’s a miracle that writer Jessie Nelson never once rhymes his name with thermometer.
It makes the show more interesting that none of Jenna’s fantasy escape routes actually pans out. This is a feel-good feminist tale, written, composed, directed and choreographed by women, where the climax is about female empowerment and coming to terms with who you are and what you have, rather than a handsome prince or a lucky win. OK – there is a sugar daddy too, but hey. Sugar is everywhere in the show; the word is a breathy refrain every time Jenna tries to bake away her problems.
Jones gives a standout performance, injecting soul and humour into the part of Jenna, and singing in a pure voice so powerful it makes your ears ring. It is an unusually strong cast, with Jones backed up by Sandra Marvin as a tough-talking Becky, and Evelyn Hoskins as kooky Dawn. Willis is excellent as the clumsy, hangdog and eager doctor, while George Crawford tries determinedly to steal the scene as Dawn’s absurd suitor, Ogie. Given that this was the show’s first night before a year-long tour, it was a pretty pitch-perfect performance. If I have a complaint it is that the sound levels need tweaking, as the otherwise excellent stage band too often drowned out the singers.
Waitress runs at New Wimbledon Theatre until Saturday 12 September 2021.
Read our interview with Matt Wills about his role in Waitress!
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