Review: Waitress, Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, until Saturday, October 23

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 4:00 pm
Waitress
Waitress

Vibrant, upbeat and refreshingly bold: the smash hit musical Waitress arrives at the Congress Theatre this week, by way of Broadway and the West End.

A quick bit of background. Based on the book by Jessie Nelson – who was herself a waitress for ten years – the story became a 2007 movie and subsequently a hugely successful stage musical. From Broadway, Waitress then took the West End by absolute storm and was still pounding out its exhilarating message when Lockdown struck, early last year. For this UK tour, little has changed – Lucie Jones retains the title role – and Diane Paulus’s direction captures all the energy and pace of the brilliant Sarah Bareilles book and music.

Is Waitress the first feminist musical? Three of the central roles are women, and author, composer, director, designer and choreographer are all female. Not that it actually matters: success in theatre and performing arts is long since based on ability and not gender or preferment. Goodness, we’ve come an awful long way since Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson…

Certainly it carries a social message, resonant but never dour and seldom angry. Instead, Waitress delivers everything in happy, self-confident style. There is pathos aplenty, and one or two shocking dark moments, but they are more than balanced out by humour, by vigorous bouncing action, and by the uncrushable buoyancy of Jenna and her confidantes.

The action, the singing and lyrics and the whole setting are all primary colours rather than subtle shades. Most scenes are set in Cal’s Diner in the Deep South, where Jenna labours for a few dollars a shift, dreaming of escaping from the tedium and from an abusive husband. The improbable escape route is Jenna’s quest to Bake the Perfect Pie and win her fortune. Her trials are shared with colleagues Dawn, beset with anxiety complexes, and Becky, world-weary but unbowed.

Lucie Jones herself is just brilliant. It is no easy part: her character of Jenna is modest, dealt a poor hand by fate, sometimes self-doubting and depressed. And yet always resilient, endlessly sympathetic and finally triumphant. Quite a process to go through every night, and twice on Thursday matinee days. Lucie carries the show, in the best sense. Her vocals are terrific and her acting is always credible. This is a show with heart, and the heart is Jenna’s.

Simply to label Waitress as a feminist show is too narrow. Take out Jenna’s violent, drunken slob of a husband Earl – Tamlyn Henderson nicely handling an unsympathetic role – and all the other male characters are actually rather likeable. Even cafe owner Cal, played enjoyably by a large as life Christopher D. Hunt, has redeeming features – and his lady employees are never cowed. Indeed, some of the aforesaid vigorous bouncing action is glimpsed behind the counter, in tandem with Becky at the start of Act Two. Sensitive disposition? Linger over your interval drink…

At least three other guys lend counterweight to the girls. Matt Jay-Willis is fantastic as adorable Dr Pomatter, the incurable romantic who falls hopelessly for Jenna - breaking all sorts of medical ethics, but heck, this is musical theatre and not social realism. Jenna’s fellow waitress Dawn – a sensational Evelyn Hoskins with tiny frame and huge soaring vocals – is swept off her feet by George Crawford’s endearingly oddball Ogie.

And Joe – Michael Starke – is both regular cafe patron and lovable source of homespun wisdom. An accomplished ensemble seamlessly handles the set changes and comes into its own with some energetic, ecstatic dance routines.

A couple of nice local links, too: Eastbourne’s own Ollie Boorman is on drums in the breezy onstage Waitress Band, and (steering carefully around the spoilers) the very last scene is stolen by five-year-old Esmae Cottrell, whose young friends from the Zoe Pennington School of Dance cheered her to the echo from the raised stalls.

In fact, Tuesday’s huge first-night house carried an interesting demographic: younger and more female than many Congress audiences, and edge-of-seat-eager to share that West End experience, without the trials of a sixty-mile trek to town. This is great scheduling and a canny deal done by Eastbourne Theatres, and a smashing night out.

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson