Will Kelly fit her dream wedding dress? – photos supplied

If I am brutally honest I may not have gone to see Fat Friends if I had not been invited to review it. A contemporary musical (with a Lloyd Webber involved) about a slimming club seemed a little out of my comfort zone. 
I am so glad I did go. This show is a delight, with the pithiest if scripts from Kay Mellor that can make all of us laugh out loud at any moment,with the kind of infectious humour that gets the audience anticipating the punchlines but still being startled by something wittier than expected.
With Kay Mellor we are immediately set in the nicer bit of Britain. The bit where people care about each other, they share their struggles to survive everyday life but also seem to get a lot more pleasure out of it. For reference purposes I think this is known in some parts as The North. 
Kelly (Jodie Prenger) lives above her mum and Dad’s chip shop and is engaged to be married to Kevin (Ryan Pidgeon tonight). Unlike Kelly’s sister Joanne (Rachael Wooding) they are both built for comfort rather than speed. Mother Betty (Sam Bailey) is a member of the local slimming club, run by Lauren (Natalie Anderson), who also runs the wedding dress shop but yearns to find a man of her own. The club is held in the church hall where the vicar Paul (Jonathan Halliwell) seems to harbour a longing for Lauren. Kelly’s father Fergus is brought to life by ex-Smiths bass player Kevin Kennedy. 
The villain of the piece is Julia Freshman, (Laura Mansell tonight) the unscrupulous boss of the slimming club company, who will stoop to anything to promote her products. She says that if Kelly joins her club and loses a couple of stone to fit her wedding dress she will pay for the wedding – but at what price for Kelly and her family?
This is a show that looks at all the pressures on women today. It gives a refreshing view of how things are changing for the better, but with some sticky moments that show we still have a long way to go to free ourselves of stereotypical gender expectations. But it treats these serious matters with the most glorious of comedy sequences and some unforgettable one-liners. I shall steal several of them. The cast were two leads down today, as flu takes its seasonal toll, but you would not know unless told, with the two ensemble members stepping confidently and skilfully into the roles of Julia and Kevin. The music by Nick Lloyd Webber is contemporary and supports Kay Mellor’s riotously funny lyrics without intruding and is played by a lively seven member orchestra, a refreshing change from the many pre-recorded soundtracks that accompany stage shows too often.
The set is a wacky reflection of small town England, and every door and window comes alive at some point in the show adding value to every square inch under the proscenium arch. 
Jodie Prenger leads the cast with a wonderfully energetic and human performance as Kelly, a young woman who knows her own mind and is full of love and passion. Jodie has a powerful singing voice and a determination to succeed that fits the character of Kelly perfectly. Neil Hurst gives a poignant but engaging portrayal of slimming club member Alan, who has lost his wife to a ‘Shirley Valentine’ holiday that never seems to end. Every member of this strong cast gave a lively and convincing performance, with one of the best curtain up moments you will see on any stage.

Not now vicar!

There are two intertwined romantic stories in this musical, with Kelly and Kevin’s ups and downs contrasted to the emerging ‘will they wont they’ liaison between slimming coach Lauren and Vicar Paul. The observation of how different people deal with confidence, and the lack of it, is wonderfully portrayed.

Like slimming clubs this show may seem to be aimed at women first, but just like those clubs all of us should go!  Anyone can  enjoy this refreshing and joyful musical. My top favourite joke was about the slimmer at the weigh-in complaining about having friends round at the weekend – but you will have to catch this show at the Theatre Royal before Saturday 17th March to get the punchline. My only regret was that the show finished too late to nip down to the Grosvenor chippie for a quick cod and chips.
© Julian Swainson 2018 



Fat Friends The Musical, Monday 12-Saturday 17 March at 7.30pm, and Weds and Sat matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets £8-£44. Discounts for Friends, Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Signed performance on Sat 17 March at 2.30pm.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000

All photos supplied by Norwich Theatre Royal