Review: Kinky Boots – Edinburgh Playhouse

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First published in The Times, Friday December 14 2018

Three Stars

The Tony award-winning musical Kinky Boots, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by the pop star Cyndi Lauper, had an unusual genesis. The story of a failing Northampton shoe factory, whose owner switches production from brogues to good-quality footwear for drag queens, began life 20 years ago as an episode of the BBC documentary series Trouble at the Top, which depicted the trials and tribulations of business executives. A low-budget feature film passed under the radar in 2005.

If the subject seems an unlikely candidate for a Broadway hit, much of the show’s success can be attributed to its composer and lyricist. Lauper has created a score that is as catchy and polished as the string of chart-toppers that launched her career in the Eighties. Like the killer points at the end of the titular boots, the most dynamic numbers in the show — including the Act I set piece Sex is in the Heel — provide the necessary elevation to what might otherwise have been fairly humdrum material.

The cast of Kinky Boots_Photo Helen Maybanks

The show’s other great boon is Lola (played in this touring production by Kayi Ushe), the vivacious cross-dresser who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the factory boss Charlie Price (Joel Harper-Jackson) and comes aboard as a designer when Charlie decides to explore a bolder, racier market.

As Lola has the lion’s share of the hummable tunes, not to mention the pick of the costumes and wigs, it is hardly surprising that his character eclipses everything else onstage. Ushe is such a commanding presence, with an effortless vocal range, that the action falls flat when he is not front and centre.

Kayi Ushe as Lola with the Angels in Kinky Tour_Photo Helen Maybanks

Among the supporting cast, Paula Lane makes for an appealingly goofy Lauper substitute as the factory worker Lauren, who carries a torch for Charlie, even if her character seems shoehorned in as a love interest for the de facto male lead. The key relationship in the story is between Charlie and Lola, and it is something of a cop-out, given the script’s broad message about diversity and acceptance, for Fierstein, whose previous credits include La Cage Aux Folles, to airbrush out any suggestion of romance between them.

Jerry Mitchell’s production really comes alive with Lola and his entourage of drag “angels”. The heels in which they strut may be death defying, but that doesn’t prevent them from walking away with the show.

Box office: 0844 871 3014, to January 5

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