Theatre Review: Hairspray

“Big ain’t the problem in this family.”

Hairspray

You may remember, if you have been a very attentive reader, that the first time I saw Hairspray on television I switched straight over to E4+1 and watched the film’s last hour again.

I liked it quite a lot, in other words.

So when I went to see the stage version in Cambridge on the 20th February (it’s currently touring the UK, and is playing in Cardiff as of yesterday), I think I was expecting a little…more.

Hairspray is the story of Tracy Turnblad, a girl living in 1960s Baltimore who Faces Prejudice due to her weight as she tries to achieve her dream of dancing on television’s The Corny Collins Show. The musical also deals with the segregation of television at the time, as Tracy battles to get her black friends integrated with the white dancers on the show.

I think what struck me the most on watching Hairspray is just how much of a white person’s show it is. The show’s agenda of keeping the energy in the theatre up to almost manic levels means that a lot of the film’s quieter and more subtle moments are cut, the production moving from song to song without taking too much account of such things as continuity and logic. (“So…how did she get on television again?” said the Circumlocutor at the interval.) The upshot of this is that obstacles feel easily erased, with integration and acceptance more or less a foregone conclusion; the show feels relentless in its insistence that racism is easy to defeat, that it can be done with a judicious song and a dance. The outright bigotry of the Corny Collins Show‘s producer Velma is too easily dismissed as, well, batshit crazy (although, see also Donald Trump – I wonder how Americans watch this show), when the actual tragedy of racism is that millions of otherwise intelligent, reasonable people discriminate, in subtle and insidious ways, against those whose skin colour is even slightly different from theirs. And – this is the clincher – we note that the show chooses to focus the struggle for integration not through the black community who are actually directly affected by it but through our single white heroine, Tracy. The show isn’t, ultimately, interested in black experiences of segregation; it’s interested in segregation only as a way to make its heroine more agreeable and its villain more villainous.

In other words, the show feels self-congratulatory, written entirely by white people for an audience which was, at least at the performance I saw, overwhelmingly white (in a city which, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, has a significantly higher non-white population than the national average). It allows its audience to feel liberal and tolerant without actually having to, e.g., examine their own prejudices and biases and do something about them. And, yes, this is a problem in a country which feels outraged that its government is going to take in a few Syrian orphans, in a culture in which Brussels gets a safe button on Facebook while Ankara does not.

“Look! We solved racism,” says Hairspray, complacently. “Now we can all be uncomplicatedly happy.”

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