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Review: Hairspray at the Liverpool Empire *****

You can’t stop the beat at the Empire this week – but then why would you want to when a show is as much glorious fun as Hairspray?

Wrapping its serious message of love, tolerance and respect in a multi-coloured song and dance extravaganza, it’s no wonder the musical, based on John Waters’ film, has proved such a hit with audiences since it was first staged in the States a decade-and-a-half ago.

This latest touring production has been on the road for eight months, but it shows no sign of flagging. It’s an irresistibly high-energy confection driven by a thumpingly good score that evokes a time, as Larkin described it, “between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP”.

We’re in Baltimore 1962 where segregation and casual racism is rife and where chubby girls don’t get to dance on TV. That is until force of nature Tracy Turnblad blazes on to the screen.

Newcomer Rebecca Mendoza absolutely smashes it as Tracy, the girl with the big heart and even bigger hair.

As a teenager, the Wirral actress appeared in summer shows on the Empire’s capacious stage. And now she’s back with a storming professional debut at the Lime Street theatre.

Bright, bubbly and brilliant, Mendoza’s Tracy is an irrepressible delight, and the actress is clearly having a ball in a role that has inspired her since she was a youngster.

She’s the fulcrum for a uniformly strong set of performances from a cast who mix powerful vocals with some nifty footwork – the former embodied in the bravura performance from Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Mabel, the latter from the athletic Layton Williams as Seaweed Stubbs – all set against a backdrop painted in lurid ice cream colours.

Matt Rixon and Norman Pace meanwhile make a delightful double act as Tracy’s devoted parents Edna and Wilbur.

The sight of statuesque Rixon (a long way from his Capital of Culture performance as Clov in Beckett’s Endgame at the Everyman) and the slight Pace performing their duet You’re Timeless to Me, half-Some Like It Hot, half-Flanagan and Allen, is a sublime joy, even if you can’t quite decide whether the moments of corpsing and ad libbing are real or very cleverly scripted and mischievously delivered.

It’s a show of big ideas, big personalities and big performances. And if you don’t leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart at the end, you really need to check your pulse.

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