PUBLISHED: 14:32 10 April 2008 | UPDATED: 17:21 16 August 2010

BALLSY: Michael Ball as Edna Turnblad.

BALLSY: Michael Ball as Edna Turnblad.

MUCH has been made about leading lady Leanne Jones s rags to riches story that mirrors the show she has made her professional debut in –

MUCH has been made about leading lady Leanne Jones's rags to riches story that mirrors the show she has made her professional debut in - Hairspray - at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

But on the night I reviewed it, the former Halifax employee had the night off, so I was treated to a fresh performance from understudy Fem Belling.

And the performance was by no means lacklustre, with a cast that clearly enjoys every minute of the stage show based on the 1988 John Waters movie.

The plot is loosely centred around Tracy Turnblad (Belling), a 16-year-old Baltimore kid, and her American ambition to be one of the 'nicest kids in town' on the Corny Collins WZZT TV show.

Of course all the nicest kids in town are good looking and superficial and are headed by the most superficial of all couples Amber Von Tussle (Rachael Wooding) and Elvis wannabe Link Larkin (Ben James-Ellis).

So it's up to Tracy to change their minds, and none more so than the imposing former beauty queen, producer and mother to Amber, Velma Von Tussle (Tracie Bennett).

Things get complicated when the bells of love come along and the podgy heroine falls for the snake-hipped Link.

Oh, and there is that little hurdle that Tracy is, well, shall we say, big boned?

Nevertheless, Tracy's energy and tenacity - matched by an audacious performance by Belling - won't let anything stop her, least of all 1960s racial segregation.

Teaming up with Seaweed J Stubbs (Adrian Hansel) and Motormouth Maybelle (Johnnie Fiori), Tracy learns some new moves as well as some new lessons.

And herein lies the theme that tells us that it doesn't matter whether you are fat, thin, geeky, black or white - hey, man, we all have the right to dance together.

Okay, so the moral lesson is as cheesy as some of the hairstyles but it gives the musical the potential for some real feeling that is often lacking in big-scale productions.

And one can overlook the sentimentality in favour of some incredible soul numbers such as I Know Where I've Been.

But the real treat of this production is Michael Ball's Edna Turnblad, the larger-than-life humdrum mum who blossoms into the yummy mummy (with a tummy).

Ball's performance brings both humour and a great deal of affection to the part - you actually want her to succeed as much as Tracy.

And the comic timing between Ball and stage husband Ian Talbot who plays Wilbur should be worth the ticket alone - their duet Timeless to Me brought the house down.

All in all, a show with a big heart to match its big hair...

* Booking for Hairspray is continuing until October. Call the box office on 020 7379 5399 or 0870 906 3829.

Kate Mead

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