Review: Fat Friends the Musical at the Orchard Theatre

On paper, Fat Friends the Musical ticks all the boxes: a nostalgic revival of a much-loved TV series, written by the show’s original creator Kay Mellor; a heart-warming story about loving yourself and your body no matter what you weigh; and a starry cast featuring stage and screen favourites that include Jodie Prenger, Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy.

The show condenses some of the main plotlines from the first series of Fat Friends into one story, primarily focused on Kelly (Jodie Prenger), who’s about to marry the love of her life, Kevin (Joel Montague), and would be the happiest woman in the world if only she could fit into her dream wedding dress. But that’s not so easy when your parents (Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy) own a fish and chip shop, your skinny sister (Rachael Wooding) won’t stop teasing you about your weight, and you’re hungry all the time. Encouraged – for different reasons – by best friend Lauren (Natalie Anderson) and dieting queen Julia Fleshman (Natasha Hamilton), Kelly sets out to lose those extra pounds… but will being slimmer actually make her happy?

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

It’s great to see Kelly, Betty and co again, thirteen years after Fat Friends left our screens, and the show’s script sparkles with Kay Mellor’s trademark Yorkshire wit and warmth. Just as we remember them, the characters are loveable and easy for real people to relate to; some of the biggest laughs are ones of recognition as the slimmers shed as much clothing as possible before their weigh-in, or battle with themselves over whether or not to have that bag of chips. We’ve all been there, and that’s why it works. (And if you don’t leave the theatre craving fish and chips, you’re a lot stronger than I am.)

Jodie Prenger is well cast as the irrepressible Kelly, and soon has us on side with her down to earth humour and unflinching honesty. Sam Bailey – just a couple of years older in real life – seems an unlikely choice to play her mother, but the two pull off a convincing on-stage relationship, with shy, nervous Betty the very opposite of her outgoing daughter. Meanwhile, Rachael Wooding doubles up so effectively as Kelly’s sister Joanne and Julia’s downtrodden assistant Pippa that I didn’t even realise it was the same person, and Natalie Anderson throws herself with seemingly limitless energy into her one character Lauren’s multiple roles as dress shop owner, slimming class leader and Zumba instructor (not to mention hopeless romantic).

Unfortunately, the music – composed by Nick Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Mellor – doesn’t quite match up to the rest of the evening. Despite a few stand-out numbers, and the undeniable vocal talents of Sam Bailey, Jodie Prenger, Natalie Anderson and others, the songs on the whole add little to the plot and, though well performed, are not particularly memorable. Given that its strength lies in the characters, story and dialogue, you have to wonder if the show, which runs at over two and a half hours, might not have worked better as a play.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Although as a musical it doesn’t quite work for me, Fat Friends is still a good night out, with a talented cast and a strong message about body image. By updating the story to the present day, Mellor is also able to cover both the opportunities and the dangers posed by social media, and the many ways in which we allow others – both people we know and complete strangers – to dictate how we should feel about ourselves. A feel-good show with a heart as big as its appetite, this revival of a TV favourite is a lot of fun for old and new friends, of all shapes and sizes.

Review: Chicago at the Orchard Theatre

Yesterday evening, as my train ground to a halt somewhere outside Lewisham, I sent a little prayer to the train gods (a.k.a. Southeastern) to please sort it out and get me to the theatre on time. Quite apart from the fact that I hate being late for anything – especially the theatre – I was on my way to see Chicago, and I think most people would agree that if you miss the opening number of Chicago, you’ve missed one of the best bits.

Chicago on Tour

Fortunately, the train gods were in a good mood for a change, so I made it to the Orchard in time to sit back, relax and enjoy Kander and Ebb’s classic musical about “murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery… all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts”. Set in the 1920s, Chicago is a darkly satirical story based on a play by Maurine Watkins (which in turn was inspired by real events). Wannabe star Roxie Hart murders her lover and ends up in prison alongside singer Velma Kelly, accused of killing her husband and sister. But when they both hire slick lawyer Billy Flynn, the women soon realise that innocence and guilt mean very little in the courts of Chicago, and that it’s the media, not the jury, that they need to win over.

With a minimalist set – the only props are a few chairs and a couple of ladders – and no need for any significant costume changes, all our attention is focused on the cast and their performances, and they don’t disappoint. This particular revival, the latest of many, features a star turn from Hayley Tamaddon as Roxie, while Sophie Carmen-Jones – who doesn’t get her name on the posters, but really should – razzle dazzles as queen bee Velma. Sam Bailey also stands out as Mama Morton; she’s a convincing figure of authority, but with a note of genuine affection for the women in her charge – and . And John Partridge is all charm and fancy footwork as Billy Flynn – though his vocals are noticeably less strong than those of his co-stars, this didn’t seem to dent the audience’s enthusiasm at the end of each number.

This could be because what makes Chicago such a fantastic show is the music – provided by Ben Atkinson’s enthusiastic orchestra, who are on stage throughout – and the Fosse-inspired choreography from Anne Reinking. These are the kinds of spectacular numbers that would glaringly expose any mistakes, but the cast don’t put a foot wrong; they’re perfectly in sync and working as one throughout – never more so than in the Press Conference Rag, which, along with All That Jazz, is one of the highlights of the show. That said, I really can’t pick a favourite song; they’re all so infectious and it’s no wonder the entire cast look like they’re having the time of their lives.

There’s a reason Chicago’s been a hit with audiences since its premiere in 1975: it’s slick, sexy (did I mention the ridiculously attractive cast?) and oh so stylish, with a satirical humour that makes for some great one-liners, but also makes a serious – and still relevant – point about the damaging and seemingly limitless power of the media to influence public opinion. Add to that the timeless score and slick choreography, and I’ve no doubt this show will be entertaining us for many years to come.

Chicago is at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 5th March.