L-R: Wendy Mae Brown, Chelsea Halfpenny, Evelyn Hoskins as Jenna, Becky, and Dawn. Last night Becky was played by Scarlett Gabriel and Dawn by Charlie Martin.
For a hot minute there it looked like the universe didn’t want me to see Waitress at the New Theatre Oxford. Opening night was cancelled because of Covid in the company (oh to never hear those words again), and the next night I ended up stranded in Oxford Parkway with no further trains, convinced I would miss the first half. Never fear! My sharp elbows muscled their way onto a bus to the city centre, and by the skin of my teeth I was bum-firmly-on-seat to catch the curtain lifting.
And boy, am I glad. If you’re not familiar with Waitress, it’s still a relatively new kid on the musical block (though boasts a cult following in musical circles), having debuted on Broadway in late 2016 to a string of Tony nominations. The music and lyrics were written by the singer Sara Bareilles (probably most recognisable from her 2007 hit Love Song), and are accordingly brilliant: catchy, funny, evocative.
Chelsea Halfpenny and Tamlyn Henderson as Jenna and her husband, Earl
The plot is based on a 2007 indie film of the same name and follows Jenna, a waitress (surprised?) and talented pie-baker working in a diner and stuck in an abusive relationship. Having accidentally become pregnant with her nasty husband’s child, she winds up beginning an affair with her (also married) doctor, whilst plotting to enter a pie-baking contest and leave her husband with the prize money. The premise is potentially bleak stuff, and there are certainly grounded moments — but it’s a fun, feel-good musical most of all, with the bleakness of life a foil for some genuinely hilarious comedy.
As for the quality of performance, this production is next-level — even on what was a night full of understudies! Our heroine, Jenna, is played by Chelsea Halfpenny, a TV regular over the years in Byker Grove, Emmerdale, Causality and Grantchester, with an emotive, technically flawless voice that filled the space and gave me goosebumps. Jenna is more subdued than some of the charming, larger-than-life characters around her, but brings a necessary touch of solemn reality against which the play revolves.
Opposite her as the nervous but heartfelt Dr. Pomatter is Matt Jay-Willis, who was (OMG!) the bassist and co-vocalist of early-noughties pop sensation Busted. Popstar credits aside, Jay-Willis managed to be both comically bumbling and endearingly attractive, skilfully maintaining his distinct character voice even in big singing numbers. If you told me he really was an awkward doctor from Connecticut, I’d damn well believe it.
L-R: Scarlett Gabriel, Chelsea Halfpenny, Matt Jay-Willis
The real charm in this production, however, is everyone else. The funny details of the ensemble cast as they smile and frown and tap their feet on stage, and the huge charisma of the people in Jenna’s life. Scarlett Gabriel (unbelievably, an understudy) as Jenna’s friend and fellow waitress Becky was a witty, big-voiced riot, and Charlie Martin (also an understudy) hit all the right comic notes after stepping in as the nerdy Dawn, Jenna’s other close friend and fellow waitress.
Absolutely stealing the show was another understudy, Mark Willshire, who was hilarious and captivating as Ogie, Dawn’s eccentric and clog-dancing new boyfriend. His performance in ‘Never Ever Getting Rid of Me’ had me cackling brilliant: big energy, playing the audience like a fiddle — just in little touches, like the drawn-out way he reached for his inhaler afterwards.
Finally, I can’t not mention the delightful staging. A detailed, picture-perfect set-up of the diner with changing sky behind it, a suddenly claustrophobic rendering of Jenna and husband Earl’s sitting room, all effectively done. Best of all: the fact that the band are sitting, bold as brass, on a corner of the stage, and sometimes a guitar-player will wander over to perch on a diner stool and strum as the characters sing. It’s a wildly charming touch.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Matt Jay-Willis and Chelsea Halfpenny as Dr. Pomatter and Jenna
For: Those in need of an evening of belly laughter, knockout songs, and rousing endings. Which is, I would imagine, most of us. Musical fans will get a particular kick from it.
Not for: If you like things prim and proper, you might be a little alarmed by the swearing and (lots of!) sex — obviously, this also means it isn’t suitable for young kids. There’s also a moment early on where Jenna’s husband doesn’t want to take no for an answer and goes to hit her, which could be uncomfortable viewing for some.
Waitress is showing at the New Theatre Oxford until 30 April. Tickets from £19.50. 24-26 George St, Oxford OX1 2AG.