Fat Friends | Theatre Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Tuesday 08 May ’18
By Conor O’Neill • Photos: Helen Maybanks
15 years after its debut on TV, a packed Grand Opera House proves the public has not forgotten the people of Headingley and their loves, interests and above all, their battles with the bulge. T-shirts stating, ‘Love Who You Are’ and ‘Diets Are Crap’ were selling as fast as the confectionary, again proving this battle is as fierce and as universal as ever.
A mixed audience, with maybe a few more women than men sit waiting for the musical to begin. Five minutes after the 7.30 mark writer/lyricist and director Kay Mellor asks us to kindly refrain from taking pictures or videos, or better still, to simply turn our phones off. The seven musicians in the pit start up and the action begins.
A Zumba class is in full flow, Lycra is on stage by the acre in almost every colour available and the energetic bunch shake their stuff to opener Move It with references to ‘bingo wings’, ‘love handles’ and ‘big guts’. The plot is pretty simple yet effective. Kelly (Jodie Prenger) is to wed the slightly slow-witted yet kind of heart Kevin (Joel Montague). Both, it’s fair to say, are a little on the heavy side, not that it keeps them from dancing for roughly half of the two hours and 10 minutes of the show. Both seem happy with the situation, love nothing more than a night in with a chippy and watching Frozen on DVD.
Kelly’s mother Betty (Sam Bailey) is up for the Leeds Super Slimmer Award, that in spite of her hubby Fergus (Kevin Kennedy) being the proud owner of Big and Battered chip shop. Though all is not well in business as Fergus laments in the third song aptly named Big And Battered. With Dominoes, Pizza Express, sushi and other competition, Fergus decides to tap into the ‘healthy’ food option and advertises ’Haddock without the Batter’ on his ever-changing chalkboard out the front of his shop.
Which leads me nicely onto the set: a pizza bar is to the audience’s left, beside that The Wedding Bell bridal shop, then the chippy and to our right the local church. The front of the wedding shop spins round to expose the interior where Lauren (Natalie Anderson) sells her wares while also serving as leader and motivator of the Headingly Super Slimmer’s Club. Lauren is at the centre of a nice little subplot. At 34 and with two pounds to lose she’s looking for Mr. Right. One condition: in order to keep her mum and dad happy, he must be Jewish. Seems Mr. Right is right in front of her the whole time. She dreamily looks at local vicar Alan (Neil Hurst) whose gaze follows her around the room. Will they or won’t they is the question on everyone’s lips… Mr. Someone sees her try to get her head around this conundrum with Alan echoing her thoughts seemingly unheard by our lovelorn Lauren.
Every piece of theatre needs an antagonist to rage against, enter Julia Fleshman (Natasha Hamilton). I was never a fan of Atomic Kitten, believing most manufactured bands had their vocals put through auto-tuners and the like and where nothing more than puppets selling records for evil moguls pulling the strings. Hamilton’s rendition of Going Global left me eating my words and silly misperception. Like all of the main cast, the girl can sing. In fact, almost all of the main cast get a chance to let their lungs run riot and none fail to please. Mellor’s lyric twinned with composer Nick Lloyd Webber’s music wanderings are perfect for this tongue-in-cheek while taking on a massive subject piece of musical theatre with a deftness of touch that is endearing from start to finish.
Fleshman has only her own interests at heart: quotas must be reached, money must be made and she’s tired of the local press and must get into the nationals. Local reporter Val (Chloe Hart) is at the start somewhat star-struck by Fleshman, whose power and influence is felt throughout Yorkshire. Fleshman’s treatment of her leccy Pippa (Rachael Wooding, who also doubles up as Kelly’s sister Joanne) cements the masses hatred of her. If I’ve one bone to pick with the show is just what, other than highlighting Fleshman’s cruelty, does the character of Pippa serves? Yes, she gets a few laughs, but I don’t think the musical would suffer without her character. Not that actor Rachael Wooding puts a foot wrong, in fact in her other role as Joanne she is great and essential, but maybe Mellor might with hindsight remove Pippa.
With Kelly caught up in a fully paid wedding by Fleshman and her fight against the flab to be won in just six weeks, ‘supplements’ are involved against the backdrop of Kevin losing his job with the water board, the chip shop fracas, a surprise for Fergus, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ Lauren and Alan subplot and the Fleshman monopoly on almost all involved the musical tidies up nicely.
Choreographer Karen Bruce runs a tight ship. I’m unsure when the run started but everyone knew the moves, every set change was seamless and all went how it should. Of course, Mellor and Lloyd Webber wouldn’t dare let us leave the theatre without boogieing ourselves. The finale of Love Who You Are has us, at the cast’s insistence, on our feet and strutting our collective stuff. Smiling from ear to ear and bopping about, ensemble and all of the main cast get a standing ovation.
A great night out and thankfully not a show you require an encyclopedic knowledge of the classics to watch and enjoy!
Ticket sales are going well though not every show has sold out, yet. To book yours visit www.goh.co.uk or phone the box office on 02890 241919. There are matinees Thursday and Saturday afternoon. If like me, you missed to TV series, get on the phone. A charming cast, plot, music and the feel-good factor are what you can expect. The show runs until Saturday 12 May 2018.
Catch our latest TV programme: Presented and produced by Stacy Fitzpatrick, this episode features a conversational joint interview with Alan Heron from the Samaritans and musician Jonny McAllister (Warriors of the Dystotheque) – talking very openly and bravely about his experience of #MentalHealth.
Issue 12 of CultureHUB Magazine