Review: Vanities: the Musical at Trafalgar Studios

We’ve waited ten years, but it’s finally here. ‎The London debut of Vanities: the Musical has been hotly anticipated, and it’s easy to see why. David Kirshenbaum’s show, which in turn is based on a 1976 play by Jack Heifner, has all the ingredients of a smash hit: an uplifting story, a catchy, toe-tapping score, a stellar cast of West End stars, and direction and choreography from American Idiot’s Racky Plews.

Kathy (Ashleigh Gray), Mary (Lauren Samuels) and Joanne (Lizzy Connolly) are cheerleaders from Dallas, Texas, preparing to graduate high school in 1964. Life’s been kind to the three best friends, who are used to being pretty and popular, and generally getting what they want. They have their whole lives planned out – but as the years pass, reality intrudes on their insular, superficial world, and the young women begin to realise things don’t always turn out quite like you thought they would. Can their friendship survive?

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

It’s essentially the plot of every classic American chick flick we’ve ever seen, and certainly doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in terms of realism. But those movies are wildly popular for a reason, and as cheesy and predictable as Vanities is, it’s also very easy to relate to. We might not all have been cheerleaders or sorority girls (and we definitely don’t all own erotic art galleries), but we were all teenagers once, and it’s easy to recognise ourselves – albeit sometimes a bit reluctantly – in the characters at each stage of their lives.

Because of limited space at the tiny Trafalgar Studios, where the audience sit so close to the stage that there’s a very good chance of getting hit in the face by a flying pom-pom, Vanities needs to have more up its sleeve than dazzling song and dance numbers. Racky Plews’ necessarily restrained production means the cast have nowhere to hide (unless you count the curtained changing rooms into which they disappear occasionally to age a few years), and Lauren Samuels, Lizzy Connolly and Ashleigh Gray rise to the occasion magnificently.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Alongside strong vocal performances, the three manage to bring a depth to their characters, even in the fluffy opening scenes when all the girls care about is make-up, hair, and if the president getting shot will interfere with their football game. Lizzy Connolly is hilarious as the naive and often gloriously tactless Joanne; her champagne-fuelled antics bring some much-needed light relief to Act 2. Ashleigh Gray’s Kathy is wound so tight you feel she might snap at any moment, and her stunning performance of Cute Boys with Short Haircuts, a significant turning point for the character, is an emotional highlight. Finally, Lauren Samuels plays Mary, on paper the least sympathetic of the three, with a haunted vulnerability that constantly contradicts the abrasiveness of her words and actions.

Andrew Riley’s pastel-coloured set is another star attraction, allowing the action to continue flowing seamlessly despite the need for multiple costume changes. Unusually, these changes actually become quite enjoyable, and even exciting, because each time the girls emerge from their changing room, their choice of outfit and hairstyle gives us an initial glimpse into the direction their life’s taken in the intervening years.

Vanities is a fun and ultimately uplifting show, with an irresistible score that will get stuck in your head for days afterwards. And whatever your views on chick flicks, there’s no doubt that this production is a triumph – so while it might not change your life, it’ll certainly brighten it for a couple of hours.

Vanities the Musical is at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 1st October.

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