MUSIC OWL AWARD: 3rd – value
When I went: 15 September 2016
Location: Trafalgar Studios (Studio 2), London
Performers: Lauren Samuels (Mary), Ashleigh Gray (Kathy), Lizzy Connolly (Joanne)
Creative team: Racky Plews (director and choreographer), David Kirshenbaum (music and lyrics), Jack Heifner (playwright and book), Matt Chisling and Amy Anzel (producers)
Approximate price: £35
Special points: Small cast
Best bit: Cute Boys with Short Haircuts / The Same Old Music
If I could change one thing: More coherent plot
Vanities is based on a play by Jack Heifner, and this does come through in several ways: the fact that the cast is very small (just three women), the frequent time-jumps, ad the prevalence of spoken dialogue, where the songs are not the star of the show.
You would be forgiven for thinking based on the marketing that Vanities is just a show about shallow girls set in the ’60s, like an older version of Mean Girls, with more fluff than substance. However, as the musical progresses it gets more thoughtful and bleak, and has several touching moments. There are some holes in the plot which can be slightly frustrating, but this may be deliberate to allow the audience to impose their own interpretations on what has happened to each character between time-jumps.
At first glance, you could typecast the three characters as the media often does typecast females: the ditzy one, the bossy one, the ‘slutty’ one (sigh). However, this work successfully illustrates the complications and contradictions in each of the characters’ personalities as well as the highs and lows in close friendships between women as they get older.
This musical will probably always attract a mostly female and young audience but ironically I think those old enough to remember the ’60s or ’70s would like it even more as they would be able to more closely relate to some of the world events and social changes that form the backdrop of this story.
Given the fact that there are only three members of the cast, who only go offstage to execute swift costume or wig changes, every performance of Vanities will rely very heavily on the talents and execution of the cast. Luckily, this production features three women with great voices and with enough chemistry to carry the story through as the characters progress from high school to middle age and beyond.
I had seen Lauren Samuels in Grease and Bend it like Beckham previously. She has always sung beautifully and seemingly effortlessly and this production gave her more of a chance to show off nuances in her acting. She managed to make Mary, who could be an unlikeable character, vulnerable and interesting throughout.
I had seen Ashleigh Gray as Elphaba in Wicked several years ago, and was impressed by her performance then. She is really compelling in Vanities and you really feel for her character as she seems to lose her way and overthink every situation. Her performance of Cute Boys with Short Haircuts was excellent and stayed with me.
I had never seen Lizzy Connolly on stage before (having seen a different actress in her part in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). She came close to stealing the show in this production, with a great sense of comic timing and with a wonderful performance in particular of The Same Old Music. Her character Joanne is the most naive of the three but also has the funniest lines, and she brought a lot of heart and depth to her performance.
Occasionally, the small space of Trafalgar Studios’ Studio 2 meant that the staging didn’t change where a change was obviously intended, like when the characters visit Kathy’s New York apartment, but on the whole it was used to great effect and helped to anchor the characters in their roots as peppy cheerleaders sharing everything.
The ticket prices are very low for London and this is definitely one of the best-value productions I’ve been to; all three of the cast have deservedly already performed in the West End and you can see them in this for £15-£35. Vanities has much more substance than the marketing suggests and is fun, sad, realistic and moving all at the same time.