On paper it seems like a writer’s colourful fantasy. And yet Kinky Boots is based (albeit loosely) on actual events in the capital of British shoe-making.
Because before the hit musical, indeed before the hit British film that preceded the musical, came the improbable real-life story of the Northamptonshire shoe factory on its uppers which reinvented itself by vamping up its production line with ladies’ footwear – for men.
While that may still be a comparatively niche market, Kinky Boots the musical has successfully transcended all sexes, ages and backgrounds to become a multi award-winning global hit.
And with its feelgood message that we should all accept one other for who we are and what we believe – and, importantly, respect one another’s differences, it seems particularly apt to be touring our divided nation this spring.
Charlie Price (Joel Harper-Jackson), the somewhat less-than prodigal ‘son’ of shoemakers Price & Son, can’t wait to walk away from his birthright and start a new life in London with his hard-nosed girlfriend.
But when his dad suddenly turns up his heels, the rather drippy Charlie – a sort of Midlands Monarch of the Glen - is left in sole charge of the ailing factory. And of finding some way to turn around its fortunes.
Enter Lola, the larger-than-life drag queen he meets if not in a club then definitely down in old Soho, and one flash of inspiration later, Charlie, Lola, and the willing (and less than willing) factory team are turning out vertiginous stiletto-heeled ‘kinky boots’ for boys who like to dress as girls.
Rather predictably, in the production process they all learn something about themselves and each other.
The action gets off to a rather slow start on the factory floor, but once Lola (Kayi Ushe) and her long-legged ‘Angels’ strut on to the stage, Kinky Boots hits its sparkly stride with lashings of va-va-voom.
With a catchy soundtrack by Cyndi Lauper and some brilliantly slick and slinky choreography from Jerry Mitchell, the big set piece numbers are joyously realised – particularly Everybody Say Yeah, a sort of Kinky Boots Greased Lightning which closes the first half and involves expertly timed dancing on factory conveyor belts.
Ushe, last seen hereabouts playing a 17th century Salem villager in The Crucible at Chester, is hugely impressive as Lola, channelling his inner Sheila Ferguson-meets-Madonna but with a beautiful vulnerability at the character’s core.
Harper-Jackson has less scope to dazzle as everyman Charlie, but his slight frame belies a big singing voice, while there’s entertaining support including Paula Lane as Lauren, the factory hand who realises she might have a crush on the boss, and Demetri Lampra as the Neanderthal Don.
Funny, heartfelt and colourful, and with an uplifting ending, Kinky Boots is two hours of toe-tapping theatrical escapism from the woes of the real world.