Kinky Boots The Musical has arrived at The Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh for its Christmas and New Year run (Mon 10 Dec to Sat 05 Jan) bringing with it the music and the drama that have already made it a hit with audiences worldwide.
Kinky Boots is a modern day true fairy tale brought to life. The story here starts with a family-run firm of shoe-makers and the story of Steve Pateman who was struggling to save the family firm from closure by diversifying product and manufacturing fetish footwear for men. The story featured in the BBC2 documentary series “Trouble at The Top” in 1999, and I remember watching that episode at the time. From this came the film inspired by the documentary “Kinky Boots” and from this, the inspiration for the musical we have here on stage.
In our story here, the firm is Northampton based Price & Sons Ltd and the last thing that Charlie Price wants to do with his life is take over the family firm from his father and make shoes for the rest of his life and he walks away from the firm to move to London with his fiancée. Events take a drastic turn of events and Charlie finds himself back at the company trying to save it from closure, and a chance encounter with a Drag Artiste named Lola whom he met in London may just have the answer to everyone’s troubles – “Kinky Boots”. Big obstacles along the way in production though are how to make the high heels structurally strong enough to take a man’s weight, how to get the new product ready for the prestigious trade fair in Milan, and how to finance everything.
I have to admit that, despite its reputation as a “hit show”, I had some real reservations about this one as if handled wrongly everything could just be a show full of stereotypical drag queens with no depth to their characters doing boring routines that we have all seen far too often. Everything was going to have to centre on a few things that even good songs could not hide if not there – a good script and equally as important, whoever was playing Lola to understand the character properly.
I am pleased to say that there is a real script here, a real story that works on many different levels of interest and subtlety and that Callum Francis is a wonderful Lola (Callum plays Lola up until 15 December). Callum gives us a Lola that we know enough about from the script to actually care about as a person and there are so many different and interesting facets to Lola. Along the way, we find out that Lola is the alter ego of a very shy man called Simon, and here Callum understands completely the difference between the two personalities of one person. Lola is the inner being of Simon, and only when dressed as Lola does Simon feel complete, happy, in control, and strong. Simon and Lola are a little bit like Clark Kent and Superman, the same person but so different. Just as important as this personality shift, Callum understands that a Drag Artiste is not by default a gay man and the areas of the feminine side of Lola/Simon and his understanding of what a woman might look for in a relationship with a man makes interesting theatre. The exploration of what defines “a man” and what defines “a strong man” deliver powerful statements too.
Contrasting sharply to Lola is Charlie (Joel Harper-Jackson) and as the relationship and understanding between the two grow and they find out that they have far more in common than either ever could have realised, Joel handles these scenes with real sensitivity, and for me, the scene between Charlie and an out of drag costume Lola is one of the most important in the whole show. This scene also has for me, the song of the show, the very powerful and poignant “Not My Father’s Son”.
Lola by default here gets many of the best lines, and Callum is superb at them all. When first explaining the difference in his view between a Drag Queen and a transvestite, Charlie asks “What are you?” “Insulted that you even have to ask” is the brilliant response. Lola’s response to arriving at the factory to find that his boots are “Burgundy” is equally brilliant as; "burgundy is the colour of hot water bottles". What Lola wants is Red, the colour of sex, two and a half feet of tubular sex for Lola's boots, nothing else will do.
The show is full of show classics from Cyndi Lauper (Music & Lyrics) with many of the routines being performed in over the top style by Lola and her “Angels”. Some other good musical performances from our other cast members too, and Charlie (Joel Harper-Jackson) has some stand-out performances here to match Lola’s every step of the way. Kinky Boots is important as a musical because all too rarely now we are getting new music for productions as all too many follow the far easier “juke-box musical” format.
The big scenes here are of course the big production numbers, but the scene with Lola performing an over the top “diva” routine at a care-home is crucial to this story and has an all too easily missed moment in it, so watch out for this one.
“Kinky Boots” the show also has an important message of accepting people for who and what they are, but the message is handled with subtlety and not force-fed to audiences. Just as importantly as this message, there is also the well-handled reality of a world where people have real prejudices born out of hate, ignorance and perhaps even fear of anyone or anything that they consider to be different from their acceptable norm. The way that Lola handles these many diverse issues here is very well written.
There are of course other characters here, other friendships and relationships forming, but the core one is that of Charlie and Lola, and some of the other people in this story do lack this depth of character development. One such character is Charlie’s fiancée; for some reason Nicola just seems to be a stereotype wanting only expensive shoes and an expensive lifestyle, and Helen Ternent can do little with Nicola here. Lauren (Paula Lane) and Don (Demitri Lampra) do however get some background and personalities given to their roles and do a very good job with them
With the team of Director & Choreographer Jerry Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper on board, this show was always going to be a musical hit, but a book by Harvey Fierstein has also given this show some real emotional depth to the principal characters.
I still though cannot get the classic song “Lola” by The Kinks out of my head here or a 1965 song perfomed by Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman from “The Avengers” television series called “Kinky Boots”. Despite my trips back down memory Lane, Kinky Boots is a great show, but as a Christmas show, some parental guidance for younger children is maybe advisable if taking them to the show.
Review by Tom King