An extraordinary recipe for musical theatre success: lashings of humour, elegant heaps of spectacle, talent oozing out the sides … baked to perfection. Waitress has all this in spades, and is addictively moreish.
Starring Lucie Jones, Marisha Wallace, Ashley Roberts, David Hunter, Peter Hannah, Shaun Prendergast, Stephen Leask and Blake Harrison
The announcement of Waitress’ replacement cast was not without scandal, and much of the murmurings on Twitter were more surrounding Laura Baldwin’s absence rather than Ashley Robert’s entry, which is really quite unfair for her West End debut. Waitress is the heartwarming tale of Jenna, who uses her baking as a way of processing and expelling her feelings during her day job baking pies and serving at a highway diner. Trapped in an unhappy relationship with an emotionally and physically abusive man, Jenna discovers that she is expecting a child. Along with her two waitress friends, Becky and Dawn, we follow Jenna as she journeys through her pregnancy and all the hurdles that come her way.
Monday 17th June heralded the arrival of three new faces in the diner. Lucie Jones, who played Jenna for a week in Katharine McPhee’s absence last month, Ashley Roberts as Dawn and Inbetweeners star Blake Harrison as Ogie. In her West End debut, Roberts showed great promise as Dawn. Played with a big heart and oodles of charisma, Roberts grew into the role as the performance progressed, though she was frequently out of breath and her diction was unclear. During her limited engagement, however, she shows more than enough promise to grow into her role as her vocal dexterity strengthens. I was impressed by her performance within group numbers, especially songs like A Soft Place to Land, in which I felt like her harmony line was well delivered. She obviously has more of a poppy voice, which isn’t necessarily suited to the song that she has to sing, but it was admirably performed and highly endearing.
Playing her romantic interest, Ogie, is Blake Harrison, who proves an inspired choice. He plays the goofy role with relish and is supremely hilarious whenever he is on stage. While I found Jack McBrayer quite grating as Ogie, Harrison manages to walk the line between energetic and childlike without coming across as annoying, and proves to be the perfect fit for Dawn. He performed his number Never Ever Getting Rid of Me with a brilliant showmanship and energy. Though his vocals were not flawless, he more than carried the role with his charisma and proved to be highly entertaining throughout the show.
This leads us to the woman of the show. Lucie Jones is an other-worldly sort of talent. Her voice is pure and powerful, and she has the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment the first note escapes her lips. Her rendition of She Used to be Mine had audience members upstanding mid-performance. Not only is her voice absolutely phenomenal, but she plays Jenna with a stunning simplicity. It is so delightful to see what different performers bring to the role, and I was surprised by the humour and the warmth, as well as the sincerity and realism that Jones brought to the role that I felt weren’t present in McPhee’s performance. Jones was also content to underplay certain moments and tell a story merely with a small facial expression, or revel in the silence. It was compelling to watch. Some of the most emotionally affecting moments were in the quiet reflections, such as when Jenna recites the ingredients she will use to make a pie for Dawn’s date. The wistful contemplative quality to her deliver sent chills down my spine. The myriad qualities that she brings to the role are so nuanced and three-dimensional, it’s so easy to warm to Jenna as a character throughout the show.
Jones also shared some brilliant chemistry with her onstage partner Michael Hamway, who was understudying the role of Dr. Pomatter for Monday’s performance. She picked up on different moments and qualities in her interactions with him that felt endearing and genuine, imbuing their relationship with humour, as Jenna too laughs at Dr Pomatter’s bumbling persona.
Marisha Wallace is still reliably hilarious and a standout throughout the show, delivering much needed sass to all of her interactions, while store owner Joe was brilliantly brought to life by Shaun Prendergast. While I was not overly keen on his interpretation of the role the last time that I saw the show, he has clearly grown into the part and is able to deliver more nuance past being a surly old gentleman.
Still masterfully performed is Earl, who is played gleefully by Peter Hannah. The character’s transitions from outrage to needy seeking of approval and affection from Jenna are played convincingly, and it’s this vulnerability and emotional blackmail that he uses on Jenna that truly make the audience feel more uncomfortable. The quiet and menacing moments are more effective than when he shows physical violence towards her. Nurse Norma is also still brilliantly hilarious as Dr Pomatter’s sassy companion, played by Kelly Agbowu, though I did find that some of her lines were lost by being at the back of the theatre.
Waitress is still aided by the stunning set by Scott Pask, which I saw in a whole different light from the back of the Upper Circle. It’s easy not to take in the complexity of the entire staging when you’re too close, but it was wonderful to see how all the different parts of the diner fit together from higher up. Something else that was noticeable from far away was the beautiful fluidity in the choreography by Lorin Latarro. I also hadn’t appreciated before seeing the show from this angle the visual effect of Jenna’s home set being closed off from the rest of the stage and being hemmed in by black, to represent her being trapped, until it was blasted away during She Used to be Mine.
Underscoring the entire show is the stunning soundtrack by Sara Bareilles. Every number is toe-tapping and delightful, as well as full of brilliant character moments and meaningful development. The entire performance is a sugar-fest, keen to focus upon human empowerment and the pursuit of true gratification. Though Jenna’s story does not end perfectly, it does not need to. This is a musical that I could see time and time again and it would never fail to entertain me. Brilliant, three-dimensional characters, spectacularly achieved sets and staged musical numbers, with multiple incredible songs along the way. Truly a delightful feast, that I will be eager to consume as many times as I can.
Waitress has extended its booking period until December 7th 2019. Tickets can be found here.