REVIEW: Kinky Boots does Northampton proud with razzle-dazzle galore on Milton Keynes stage

Lola  leads his 'Angels' in an energetic dance routine
Lola leads his 'Angels' in an energetic dance routine

Graham Tebbutt reviews Kinky Boots at Milton Keynes Theatre

As a proud Northamptonian, I was one of the first through the cinema doors when the film, Kinky Boots, opened in 2005.

'Full of colour, dance and song': Kinky Boots

'Full of colour, dance and song': Kinky Boots

I couldn’t believe a proper, actual, big screen movie had been made about - and even partially filmed in - my home town.

And despite its low-key cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor was a relative unknown at the time), this plucky ‘against all odds’ storyline, with its gentle British humour, was excellent,sadly without ever smashing any box office records.

So not only was I even more surprised when they decided to turn it into a stage musical, I was stunned when it went on to pick up endless major titles on both sides of the Atlantic, including honours at the Tonys and the Olivier Awards.

Sadly, life and circumstance prevented me from seeing its run in London and even its visit to the Royal & Derngate in Northampton last September, so there was a twist of personal irony that I should finally get to see it down the road at Milton Keynes this week.

But boy, was it worth the wait!

I don’t deny I’m a little partial to a well-staged musical, from the laugh-out-loud The Producers and Spamalot to the huge-scale productions of of 42nd Street and ‘Les Mis’.

And Kinky Boots is right up there.

It dripped with so much razzle and dazzle that is was easy to see why it had wowed audiences in both the West End and on Broadway.

In brief, the tale is of a young man who inherits a struggling family shoe factory and who decides to diversify, thanks to the help of a drag queen, who inspires the company’s move from producing traditional men’s shoes to bold, fetishtic footwear instead.

Joel Harper-Jackson plays the likeable, but bewildered, son given the task of saving the factory and its staff, and salvaging his engagement to the ambitious and domineering Nicola (Helen Ternent), who yearns to leave their “small, factory home town” for the bright lights of London.

He’s torn between her and trying to continue his father’s industrial legacy, despite having no real experience in the trade, and he has the audience see-sawing from laughter to tears and often audible support.

But it’s a slightly odd premise when the hero of the story, “Charlie from Northampton”, is arguably not the real star of the show.

That honour goes to Lola, played with gusto by Kayi Ushe, as the flambuoyant drag queen who is inwardly desperate to be accepted, while outwardly not giving a damn about what other people think.

It’s a difficult task to play such a larger-than-life role without straying into over-the-top over-acting, but Ushe pitches his performance perfectly.

He has the audience rooting for him from the moment he appears on stage, fluctuating from loud and brash to emotional and vulnerable, whenever Simon (his real name) comes to the surface.

The two main characters share an unlikely friendship, welded by their similar dreams of success and happiness and a wish to make their blinkered fathers proud, but tested when even Charlie momentarily betrays a small town mentality towards sexual diversity.

The show moves at a lightning pace and full credit goes to the amazing set design of David Rockwell, who manages to transform a drab shoe factory interior into a nightclub, a boxing ring and even gents toilets with some rapid, seamless set changes and clever lighting effects.

And the dance routines use every inch of the set, whether it is on factory conveyor belts or a Milan fashion show catwalk.

Fewer supporting casts can work harder during the two hours 30 minutes on stage, from Paula Lane (as smitten shoe worker, Lauren), to her bigoted factory colleague Don (Demitri Lampri) to the Angels (Lola’s drag queen friends from London).

There was admittedly mixed success at what I think were some attempts at a Northampton accent, but the occasional “goo” (verb. To go) and at least one “m’duck” kept me onside.

The storyline builds to a climax full of colour, dance and song, with the show-stopping Raise You Up/ Just Be being one of the many musical highlights in a brilliant score written by Cyndi Lauper.

I defy anyone who enters the theatre suffering from the early winter blues to leave with anything but a smile and spring in their step. And the standing ovation shows I was not alone.

* Kinky Boots is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, November 9. Visit www.atgtickets.com/venues/milton-keynes-theatre