THEATRE REVIEW: Kinky Boots, Adelphi Theatre

The West End cast of Kinky Boots (c) Matt Crockett
The West End cast of Kinky Boots (c) Matt Crockett

booking until 28 May 2016

Having swept the boards at the 2013 Tony Awards, despite some initial mixed reviews, the long-awaited West End version of Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s Kinky Boots finally landed in the Adelphi Theatre this summer, replacing another factory-based show Made In Dagenham. I left the show bouncing off the walls after a fizzing, fabulous finale, but the high-energy performances have a mountain to climb to cover some rather formulaic and unsatisfying elements in the book, and only just managed it.

For a work that premièred in the USA, this is a very British musical: based on the 2005 film of the same name that was in turn inspired by series three of the BBC documentary Trouble at the Top, the show is set in a shoe factory in unglamorous Northampton, which reluctant boss Charlie Price must rescue from the brink of closure. Against the wishes of his girlfriend Nicola, and many of the factory’s workers, he hits upon a solution – women’s shoes for men. Aided by drag queen Lola, Charlie sets about turning the business’s fortunes around, and along the way everyone learns a valuable lesson about tolerance and what it means to be a man.

If this makes an unusual story actually sound rather formulaic, it’s because the musical does just that. While the premise may be revolutionary, there’s nothing radical about the show itself. Much of Lauper’s score is functional rather than remarkable, and Fiernstein’s book lacks much dramatic purpose. Sections of the show lack drive, despite a talented cast.

And yet. When Kinky Boots is good, it’s very good. The creative team certainly know how to put on a big number, with ‘The Land of Lola’, ‘The Sex Is In The Heel’, Act I closer ‘Everybody Say Yeah’ and finale ‘Raise You Up/Just Be’ suddenly raising the energy up to the roof. Swinging between a little bit bland and barnstorming, the show left me conflicted: at the end I was up on my feet on a complete theatre high, when not 15 minutes previously I’d been lamenting a disappointment.

All in all I was expecting a little more from this award-winning show. However, what it lacks in creativity, it makes up for in the shape of a tip-top cast. Fresh from fantastic performances as Huey in Memphis and Deco in The Commitments, Killian Donnelly here has a much less flamboyant role to play with; yet his ever-impressive vocals are as strong as ever and he deals well with Charlie’s uncharacteristically intolerant outburst at Lola, a passage of dialogue I feel is a mistake – even under pressure, it’s just not credible that the character be so suddenly hateful. The role is overall a little drippy, but fair play to Donnelly for doing a great job with the material he’s given. I don’t think any audience members could forget that outfit from the final scene either, which to his credit he rocks with confidence!

Jamie Baughan as Don (L) and Matt Henry as Lola (R) (c)  Johan Persson
Jamie Baughan as Don (L) and Matt Henry as Lola (R)       (c) Johan Persson

On Broadway, Billy Porter stole the show as Lola; in London, Matt Henry puts in a similarly powerful, tour de force performance, and really leads the show forward. He manages to capture both the muscular and camp elements of Lola’s character well – both the boxer and the dancer are believable – and draws your attention whenever he is on stage. He also gets some of the best lines (“Please god, tell me I have not inspired something burgundy…. Burgundy is the colour of hot water bottles!”) and the best musical numbers, allowing Henry to show off his flair and fancy footwork. Yet he also pulls it back when necessary and carries the only genuinely emotional moments of the night. His performance of ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ is not only vocally stunning but incredibly moving, particularly when you realise the context.

Also impressive are Lola’s ‘Angels’, her back-up dancers who not only have envious, mile-long legs, but bring all the sass and electricity that other scenes are missing. As Lauren, a factory employee with a crush on her boss, Amy Lennox is undersold plot-wise, but her hilariously goofy and bold performance is a breath of fresh air.

There are too many flat moments in the show, which are certainly down to creative work rather than the accomplished cast. However, there is a handful of musical numbers and some stand-out performances that drag this average musical up to higher things, and leave you tapping your toes and grinning broadly as some zany sparkle distracts from the lack of artistry and power.

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