Thursday, 17 September 2015

Theatre review: Kinky Boots

If it's one of the biggest new musical openings of the year, then chances are Killian Donnelly's involved: He plays Charlie, who's been trying to escape Northampton all his life, and has finally moved to London with his girlfriend when he gets news of his father's sudden death. He's left behind the shoe factory that's been in their family for generations, but once he gets his hands on the books Charlie realises the factory is failing. The only solution is to close it, and put the staff he's known all his life out of a job, unless he can find a new niche market for the company to specialise in. A chance encounter with drag queen Lola (Matt Henry) provides just that; soon Price & Son are exclusively manufacturing Kinky Boots, in Harvey Fierstein (book) and Cyndi Lauper's (music & lyrics) adaptation of Geoff Deane and Tim Firth's hit 2005 film.

Jerry Mitchell's production originated on Broadway, where it's been running for over two years now, and it's interesting to see how an American take on a very British story and setting fares on home ground.


There's probably been a ton of changes from the original production, but I still think there's more that could have been done to take out lines it seems unlikely an English person would say: It's only small things - "zipper," "childhood sweetheart," "London Town" - but they're frequent enough that it became noticeable to me. It probably wouldn't matter if the first act wasn't so uneven: Lola has some great lines and Henry delivers them with sass, great stage presence and an impressive singing voice. But the whole story is built on contrasting her with the bland and initially uninspired Charlie, so the scenes without Lola centre on a character with no apparent personality.


In fact the only time the show comes to life without Henry centre stage, is when it gets a showstopping song ("The History of Wrong Guys") from Lauren, a factory worker who's developed a sudden crush on her boss. Amy Lennox brings a very funny quirkiness to her performance that makes the moment stand out. If the rest of the show is oddly flat until the interval, things pick up significantly in the second act, which starts to look into how dropping a flamboyant drag queen into a Midlands factory might not go down too well with some of the workers; Jamie Baughan's self-styled Alpha male Don particularly takes against Lola, and as the pressure gets to him even Charlie comes out with a big transphobic tirade. At least making him a dick is better than him having no defining characteristics at all, and the second act benefits from having higher stakes.


Lauper's music also comes up with much stronger tunes, giving the second half a new energy and variety. Given this is the same theatre where The Bodyguard ran, it's a bit freaky to see Henry channelling Whitney Houston, but with a penis and a pulse, for Lola's big second act showstopper "Hold Me in Your Heart." Even by musical theatre standards, there's some jarring plot holes and underdeveloped characters: Notably Charlie's fiancée Nicola (Amy Ross,) who we don't really see enough of to know why we should dislike her as much as we're probably meant to. The last time we see her, she's arguing with Charlie about the fact that he's remortgaged their flat, so when he finally pairs up with Lauren and tells her he's not engaged to Nicola any more, my first thought was "...does she know that?"


By the interval both Phill and I, though enjoying the show for the most part, weren't as blown away as the rest of the audience seemed to be. Maybe it was being so far away up in the gods, or more likely that we were in the Adelphi watching a show about a factory, and it didn't feature a wildly xenophobicsong-and-dance number involving a tank. But the second act dealt with most of our reservations, and Phill was even planning to download the album when he got home; there's certainly a lot of good performances including Matt Henry's spectacular central turn, and if not quite the instant classic I might have been hoping for, Kinky Boots is enough fun that they'll probably keep walking in the West End for a while.

Kinky Boots by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper, based on the screenplay by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, is booking until the 6th of February at the Adelphi Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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