Fat Friends the Musical is a feel-good play with plenty of belly laughs. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
Reuniting the characters from Kay Mellor’s hit TV show, Fat Friends follows the struggles of a group of overweight friends who attend a slimming club based in Headingley, a suburb of Leeds. Kelly has a larger-than-life personality but is struggling to fit into her dream wedding dress, lovelorn group leader Lauren is trying to find the man of her dreams, whilst Kelly’s father Fergus is just trying to keep the family chip shop open.
Whilst the epicenter of the story is the slimming club, this is ultimately a tale about a tight-knit community, who are incredibly supportive of each other. Mum Betty and group leader Lauren are determined to help Kelly get into her dream dress, with the rest of the group cheering on the reluctant slimming club attendee.
Despite dealing with a sensitive issue of weight, Fat Friends piles on the humour, somehow skirting over some heavy issues including the darker side of the diet industry, unemployment, fat shaming, and divorce to name a few. It is impressively done, careful to laugh at the absurdity of weight loss industry rather than the people, including some clever observations of dieters who often put back on the diet as well as the ridiculous rituals which take place in slimming class weigh-ins. The influence of the sitcom element of the original TV series is clear and whilst the musical sticks to keeping the story light, there is an endearing charm to it.
Atomic Kitten’s Natasha Hamilton plays the ruthless diet-industry mogul Julia Fleshman wonderfully. Whilst the real villain of the story is effectively the weight of expectations, Hamilton’s Julia is the closest things to a villainess in the story. And if Hamilton plays the baddie of the story then Jodie Prenger’s Kelly is the heroine. Prenger is an excellent choice as Kelly, treating the character with real affection and balancing Kelly’s self-assurance with her vulnerability. Prenger understandably performs some of the play’s biggest songs, but Sam Bailey, who plays shy mum Betty also puts in a strong performance; she is delightfully understated which only serves to make the strong songs more powerful.
Unsurprisingly, the appearance of Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff on stage resulted in cheers from the audience. Making his stage debut it’s clear Flintoff is not at the same level as the other performers on stage and at times looks a little unsure of himself, but he plays the hapless and loveable character of Kevin with sincerity, adding to the warmth of the production, and his vocals fit well with the character. Cynically one might think Flintoff is merely included in the line-up to sell more tickets, but it’s a gamble that pays off and his homespun charm really works well. I hope we see him in more upcoming productions.
Nick Lloyd Webber’s (yes, son of Andrew) continues the affable charm of the play, with cheerful pop tunes moving the story along. For the most part the score is strong, with a few moments that need ironing out, but I suspect most of the audience will be too swept away in the charm of the story to be concerned with poetic structure and rhyme. The songs also compliment the humour delightfully, with titles like ‘Diets are Crap’ and ‘Stinking Rich’. But it is perhaps ‘Chocolate’ which brings about some of the biggest laughs of the the night full of innuendo and delightfully British, though I may never look at a Cadbury’s flake in quite the same way again.
Fat Friends the Musical feels like the spring sunshine on a Saturday afternoon; it’s cheerful, light and endearing. It is showing at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from Tuesday 3rd – Saturday 7th April 2018, and tickets are available via the Theatre’s website.
This was a press event. Photographs were taken by Helen Maybanks.