Bristol Theatre Reviews

Review: Waitress the Musical Bristol Hippodrome

Waitress is at the Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 12 February 2022

The Bristol Hippodrome has been on a roll so far this year, with a programme of high-quality shows thoroughly entertaining and delighting audiences.

Waitress, a musical version of Adrienne Shelly’s movie, is no exception. It’s a genuinely funny show, with some quite dark moments. It features excellent storytelling with one foot in reality, another foot in friendship, and a head somewhere daydreaming in the clouds.

If you look at the plot it’s a funny old story. There’s affairs, some quite dysfunctional approaches to relationships, including what amounts to love through stalking, and of course, some sketchy approaches to doctor – patient professional ethics.

But real life can also be a funny old story. The brilliantly written book by Jessie Nelson, which keeps you hooked, brings us well developed characters we warm to.

What the show also does is expertly tackle really hard hitting subjects, giving them the time and space they need. But it also doesn’t lag, managing to switch back to perfectly timed comedy in an instant, bringing light to darkness.

The story centres around Jenna, in what is effectively a rom-com, comedy-drama, rags to riches story – although manages to avoid the usual tropes and cliches.

She is a waitress and expert pie baker working in a diner. She dreams of winning a pie baking contest which will give her the money and opportunity to leave her husband, who exerts coercive control and financial abuse.

Her pie baking talents stems from a tactic her own mother used to shield her from the effects of domestic violence pervading the family during childhood. Each pie she creates has a creative connection to what’s going on around her. And, the methodical and organised way she bakes them, including wandering off into a safe world inside her head, is a way of creating order from situations she cannot control.

Jenna’s relationship with Earl is perfectly played out. The chilling scenes makes the audience feel tense as we sense Jenna walking on egg shells around Earl, careful not to set him off. And Tamlyn Henderson as Earl is brilliantly horrible at what he does.

Jenna is buoyed at work – which is a safe haven – by her close friends Becky and Dawn and boss Cal – whose bark is worse than his bite. The intergenerational context of the diner also sees an unlikely friendship play out between Jenna and an initially annoyingly customer who ‘acts like he owns the place’.

When she becomes pregnant, her plans are thrown up in the air, especially when she falls for Dr. Pomatter, the new gynecologist in town. And also married.

Matt Jay-Willis’ gentle yet awkward manner as Dr. Pomatter, is refreshingly understated for musical theatre. It’s partly why the cognitive dissonance we feel around the affair being both dishonest yet somehow forgivable keeps throwing us.

Pity poor Scarlet Gabriel as long-suffering Nurse Norma, who pulls him up on his nonsense with her well-timed quips.

If there’s a love story in the show, it’s mostly found in friendships, the day-to-day relationships we have with the people around us and our children. The affair with Dr. Pomatter is less about love and more about connection between two people experiencing massive upheavals in their lives. The awkwardness of the affair is presented at the end, when Jenna discovers that his wife actually appears to be a perfectly lovely person who trusts him implicitly.

But it’s not just about Jenna and the doctor. Kooky Dawn is actively looking for love, finding the equally kooky Ogie through online dating. Ogie could also be another potentially problematic character. The song Never Getting Rid of Me, has some quite frankly sinister lyrics, but George Crawford manages to enhance the quirky and more lovable aspects of Ogie, connecting with the similar characteristics he shares with Dawn – played by Evelyn Hoskins to humorous effect. By the end of the show he feels ‘safe’ and the relationship has a power balance. But initially, it feels off kilter against the belief that Waitress is a feminist show, especially compared to the dynamics of 2022.

Becky is also not missing out on the action, having a secret relationship with her boss. The bickering, playful power play between her and Christoper D. Hunt as Cal, is seen coming a mile away but is a rewarding pay off. Sandra Marvin is wonderfully watchable with brilliant comic timing, owning the stage with Becky’s self confidence and sauce.

In fact, the whole cast is simply phenomenal. Chelsea Halfpenny smashes it as Jenna, giving us a truly heartfelt heroine we can back.

Scott Pask’s set is stunning. It has a cinematic feel and you really do feel immersed in an American diner, especially with Ken Billington’s lighting on the set backdrop.

Waitress is at the Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 12 February 2022. It’s a really entertaining show, performed by a fab cast, with all that pie talk making you feel a bit hungry by the interval.

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