Spoiler alert: If you have not yet seen Waitress and want to be surprised (although you can probably guess much of the plot anyway!), stop reading now.
Warm, sweet, light-hearted, fun are all words that come to mind when summarising the new opening of Waitress at Manchester Opera House. Although a cult classic for many, those more unfamiliar with this well-known musical comedy might be unsure of what to expect. But the production’s tagline, ‘Everyone Deserves a Slice of Happiness’, certainly rings true and it is somewhat impossible to leave the theatre without some form of smile on your face.
The Broadway hit, famously composed by Sara Bareilles, is an all-American affair. Set in a small Southern town it follows Jenna, trapped within a controlling, loveless marriage, who finds solace within her love of baking pies. An opportunity to escape the monotony of her small-town life arises, and we follow Jenna through her various trials and tribulations in search of a better life.
An unapologetic rom-com, the plot is a fairly predictable storyline. However, in its onstage, musical format, sprinkled with jokes and lively musical numbers, the familiar narrative feels somewhat comforting rather than boring.
As a musical, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is the music that really carries this performance. The upbeat, cheerful soundtrack is performed well by the cast and the band, and it is a nice addition that the band are somewhat built into the set. Positioned to the right of the stage, they form part of a dynamic, well thought-out set and stage that seamlessly shifts between scenes.
Although it must be noted, that it is awkward watching the band forced to interact with the slightly overbearing ensemble who seem to continually drift in and out of the background.
Lucie Jones (The X Factor, Eurovision) plays an endearing, likeable Jenna; a character that you are very much conditioned to root for from the beginning. Jones is a strong lead but comes into her own during the musical parts, particularly within her solos. Her voice is confident, filling the room boldly whether in an upbeat, pacy number such as ‘Bad Idea’ or in the more mournful solo performance of ‘She Used to be Mine’.
In Act 1, the true vibrancy and energy is instead brought by Sandra Marvin (Emmerdale) playing ‘Becky’. Strong from the offset, Marvin’s convincing American drawl commands the stage, and whilst it somewhat felt like the other actors had to settle into their role, particularly Evelyn Hoskins (Casualty) in her role as Dawn, Marvin was immediately confident. She wins the first few big laughs from the crowd and really sets the tone of how the show is to continue in terms of its comedic elements.
The lead male role is played by Busted’s Matt Willis, as Dr. Pommater. In terms of his general performance, he plays the role fairly well, but Willis, unfortunately, does not stand up to the standard set by the rest of the cast when it comes to the musical numbers.
Waitress as a production has a somewhat infamous history for its tendency for celebrity casting, and Willis appears to be the latest victim of such. Whilst Jones manages to carry him through most of the duets, there is a general sense of relief when the drawn-out song, ‘You Matter to Me’, involving a lengthy solo from Willis, finishes in Act 2.
Bigger spoilers ahead …
An inevitable part of any rom-com, apart from the light-hearted, funny moments, is of course the more sombre, reflective storylines. However, in true rom-com style, this is overdone, namely through the metaphor of a pie, and by the final curtain you will be glad you no longer have to hear the sing-songy lyrics of ‘sugar, butter, flour’ again.
The more emotional scenes slightly jar against the panto-esque comedy and expose the weaknesses in the script and performance. The theme of bereavement is briefly referenced through a ghostly portrayal of Jenna’s late mother, suddenly appearing and disappearing as Jenna makes pies that remind her of her childhood. However, these brief flashes and the fact the actor portraying Jenna’s mother was so visibly young, meant the performance lacked the authenticity needed to tug on an audience’s heartstrings.
The theme of motherhood was also explored, but what was meant to be seen as heartwarming was in fact quite depressing. Rather than the pie competition which dominated much of Act 1, Jenna’s redemptive story arc and the final push to leave her husband was giving birth – to a baby she didn’t even originally want, but I guess at that point she hadn’t experienced ‘true’ mother’s love.
A storyline that could have been challenging and thought-provoking, as portrayals of women not wanting children are rare on stage and screen, instead succumbed to a typical and rather uncomfortable idea that motherhood saved her, with her horizons physically widening as the curtain lifted back. Jenna’s only real empowerment was through men, breaking up with them, or being gifted the pie shop by her boss, Joe. What could have been a brilliant American Dream story, instead became one where women are still very much ‘in the kitchen’ and defined through their romantic relationships and their children – with even the pie shop renamed after her child.
Another scene, uncomfortable for a different reason arises during Act 2, particularly if you made the ill-informed decision to watch this performance with your parents. As the stage descends into chaos whilst romantic storylines reach their climax, you will almost certainly ask yourself, “Am I a prude? Or is this actually quite explicit?” The enthusiastic whoops and cheers from the middle-aged audience confirmed our narrow-minded outlook, and we cringed our way through the rest of the scene.
A special tolerance is also needed for a deep Southern American drawl, where at points it couldn’t quite be determined whether the casts’ accents were slightly rusty or if they just sounded particularly jarring to a British audience.
But if you are able to succumb to this sugary, sweet, over-the-top American production, it certainly is a light-hearted evening of laughs and an impressive musical soundtrack. You just have to embrace the deep South and somewhat forget the dreary, rainy Manchester you are actually in. Although admittedly this was hard to do when the cast of Coronation Street were sat in the row in front.