Kinky Boots

Theatre, Musicals
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 (Photograph: Matthew Murphy)
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Photograph: Matthew Murphy
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Photograph: Matthew Murphy
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Photograph: Matthew Murphy
 (Photograph: Matthew Murphy)
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Photograph: Matthew Murphy
 (Photograph: Matthew Murphy)
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Photograph: Matthew Murphy
 (Photograph: Matthew Murphy)
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Photograph: Matthew Murphy

A little English film is given a big Broadway makeover with decidedly mixed results

Audiences only have to cast their minds back to 2005 for proof that quaint independent British films can be adapted into successful big-time Broadway musicals. That was the year Billy Elliot premiered on the West End. Now comes Kinky Boots, which also began in 2005 as  another of those dour little films, such as The Full Monty or Brassed Off, that the English seem to love so much: a story championing, while simultaneously patronising, the working class. The difference – and it is significant – is that this show has been adapted by Americans.

Cyndi Lauper created the music and lyrics, Harvey Fierstein has written the book, and the show is directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. There’s no denying the wealth of experience these creators bring, but they are all a long way from Northampton in the East Midlands of England, where the story is set. This isn’t necessarily problematic – Lauper was from a working-class background, Fierstein has inside experience of the homophobia that underscores the plot, and Mitchell certainly knows how to put on a show – but it does mean the economic and social realities of the story are constantly upstaged by the razzle dazzle.

When his father dies, Charlie Price (Toby Francis) inherits the family shoe factory, to the horror of his avaricious, social-climbing girlfriend Nicola (Teagan Wouters). She wants to turn the place into apartments, but Charlie is determined to protect the workers’ jobs – even though the business is bleeding money and he is only weeks away from bankruptcy. No one wants the daggy but well-made shoes the factory produces, but Charlie is unable to think of an alternative.

Enter Lola (Callum Francis), a formidable and statuesque drag queen who complains about her shoddy boots and inspires Charlie to turn his business around by manufacturing women’s boots for men. He hires Lola as his new designer, and the first pair of "kinky boots” is created. The rest of the plot involves a homophobic factory worker learning compassion, a new love interest for Charlie, and a trip to Milan Fashion Week – all of which goes precisely as you’d expect.

Of course, even frivolous feel-good musicals need a little gravitas, so Kinky Boots shamelessly exploits that reliable tearjerker: father-son relationships. Charlie constantly frets over his dead father’s legacy, while Lola struggles to shake off the homophobic abuse she suffered from her dad. This theme has a magnificent payoff late in the second act, but feels seriously overworked in the lead up.

Charlie and Lola are given equal billing, but in reality this show is all about the drag queen, and Callum Francis is nothing short of astonishing. Having understudied the role in the UK, he is finally getting the spotlight he deserves and he seizes the opportunity with his whole body. Intensely charismatic, funny and dignified, his performance is so alive it tends to throw everyone else into shadow. At one point Charlie says of Lola that “whenever she wasn’t in the room a great gaping hole opened up”, and this is true of the production too.

Toby Francis suffers as much from the baffling psychological inconsistencies in his character as from the eclipsing work of his co-star. Charlie is a mild-mannered, thoroughly decent person who inexplicably morphs into a seething, tyrannical homophobe for about ten minutes for no perceptible reason other than to inject conflict into the plot.

Musically, Lauper’s songs are fine, especially the dance-club inflections of ‘Sex is in the Heel’ and ‘Raise You Up’, but lyrically they are either awkwardly phrased – ‘Not My Father’s Son’ in particular suffers from this – or meaningless and bland. One song is called ‘Everybody Say Yeah’, which is pretty much all everybody says. Thankfully, Mitchell’s choreography is so good that most of these numbers prove infectious despite these flaws, and the finale is as entertaining as it is silly. David Rockwell’s set design is simple but flexible, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is stunning.

Kinky Boots is an undemanding and colourful night in the theatre, but it is also rather shallow and contrived. How it won the Tony for Best Musical over the infinitely superior Matilda is anyone’s guess. Characters’ actions are dictated by the mechanics of the plot rather than any psychological veracity, and the themes of diversity and acceptance tend to flatten into cheap motivational slogans. It’s difficult to shake the belief that perhaps the Brits would have done it better after all.

By: Tim Byrne

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