Theatre review - Fat Friends the Musical at Manchester Opera House

Jodie Prenger and Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff, Fat Friends the Musical

Jodie Prenger and Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff, Fat Friends the Musical - Credit: Archant

Packed with laughs, peppered with pathos, Kay Mellor does it again. Fat Friends the Musical is everything you hoped for, and the rest, writes Kate Houghton

Natasha Hamilton and Rachel Wooding in Kay-Mellor's Fat Friends the Musical

Natasha Hamilton and Rachel Wooding in Kay-Mellor's Fat Friends the Musical - Credit: Archant

When Kay Mellor first wrote Fat Friends, she had done her research and formed her opinions on the devastating power that diets and diet clubs can have over those seeking to shed a pound or two. That was in 2000 and things definitely haven’t improved, with the advent of social media such as Instagram and Snapchat creating an environment where ‘fat shaming’ has become so commonplace it barely achieves troll status.

Here we’re given a look at the life of a deliriously happy young woman, Kelly, who has no body issues and is joyfully planning her wedding to a man who adores her. Until…the dress. The dress she has dreamed of and saved up for doesn’t fit. Weight must be lost or another dress chosen.

The story is cleverly told. We’re given sharp insight into the effects of the weight loss club Kelly joins, when we see the terror before the weekly weigh-in session. Yet there is another message – that you shouldn’t delay your happiness with self-imposed barriers. “When I’ve lost weight I’ll…”, “When I’ve toned up I’ll…”, “When I…” Even the slender-as-a-whip Lauren, who runs the weight loss club, puts off finding her happiness until she achieves her ‘goal weight.’

Jodie Prenger and Sam Bailey in Fat Friends the Musical

Jodie Prenger and Sam Bailey in Fat Friends the Musical - Credit: Archant

As you woul expect from anything Kay Mellor writes, there are some truly cracking characters in this show. From happy, bouncing Kelly to her constantly anxious mum Betty; from nervous, repressed Lauren to daft, puppy-like (thick as a brick) Kevin; from driven, controlling and self-absorbed Julia to grumpy, put-upon Fergus, and all the smaller parts too, every character is brilliantly crafted and equally brilliantly presented by the cast.

And what a cast! Seriously, having Jodie Prenger and Sam Bailey sharing a stage is reason enough to book a ticket, but add in Atomic Kitten’s Natasha Hamilton, Kevin Kennedy and – in his musical theatre debut – Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff and it’s an irresistible line-up of talent.

Jodie’s Kelly is fabulous. She’s loud and happy, bolshie and beautiful. Her voice is glorious and pairs so beautifully with Sam Bailey’s that you could hear jaws dropping across the auditorium. Sam Bailey puts in a great performance as Kelly’s mum Betty and wow, when she pushes that voice out there…amazing. Corrie’s Kevin Kennedy is always reliable, though his voice did seem to be suffering a little last night. Natasha Hamilton, in her role as Julia Fleshman, the embodiment of the darker side of dieting clubs, is marvellous. Stalking in, wrapped in a bodycon dress and flicking orders at her downtrodden assistant, she may be playing a caricature, but she does it with class.

Which brings us to Freddie. What a very brave thing for a man to do. To put himself out there, night after night, with no chance of a re-take, or a quick break while he gets himself together, is something those trained for the stage have had years and years to ready themselves for, starting in the ensemble and working their way up. Freddie – straight into a main part, with loads of lines and a solo song too. And he does it really, really well. Arriving on stage to a massive cheer, he gets straight into it. His delivery is perfect for the role, nice but dim (very dim, hilariously so) nobody expects Shakespearian soliloquys. His singing is great; he delivers his solo with bravado and to great success and his delivery of occasional mispronunciations - ‘fian-kay’ for fiancé - could not possibly be bettered. He just needs to learn what to do with his very tall body and fielder’s hands, as he has yet to lose that sliver of self-consciousness every more experienced actor is totally without.

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The score is light and happy, easy on the ear and the perfect accompaniment to some positively side-splitting lyrics, with ‘Diets are crap’ (never a truer word was spoken) and ‘Chocolate’ scoring particularly high on the audience laugh-ometers. I have a feeling that many a bar of Dairy Milk has found its way to an audience member today, following the hilarious homage to the nation’s favourite last night. Never will I be able to view purple silk in the same way again…

Fat Friends the Musical runs at Manchester Opera House until 3 April.

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