“Bones aren’t sexy! Flesh is fabulous!” declares a character early on in Fat Friends – The Musical, a new stage musical spin-off from the early noughties ITV series.
Set at a slimming class in a church hall in Headingley in Leeds, it’s a musical that tries to have its cake and eat it – a show about the trials and tribulations of trying to pursue a perfect body (or at least a slimmer one, to fit into a dream wedding dress for a ceremony in six weeks time) that also celebrates the joys of being plus-sized.
Kay Mellor, who also wrote the TV series, has written the book and lyrics as well as directing. She ensures that the show has a plus-sized heart. It may not be exactly subtle but it is certainly supple. The action shifts from a Zumba class to a weigh-in session, from a bridal shop to a fish and chips shop, all wittily conjured on Bretta Gerecke’s pop-up high street set.
If it occasionally feels a bit formulaic and not unlike a sitcom, it benefits from the inspired casting of Jodie Prenger, as the adorable Kelly (the role played by Ruth Jones on screen). Sam Bailey – another reality TV star, having won the 2013 series of The X Factor – is in equally fine voice playing Kelly’s mum Betty (played by Alison Steadman on TV).
They, and such solid West End names as Kevin Kennedy, Rachael Wooding and Chloe Hart, ensure the acting throughout is strong. A bigger question mark hovers over the musical theatre debut of former England cricketer-turned-TV pundit Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff. He is playing Kelly’s fiancee Kevin (only at some dates of the tour – he was unscheduled at Milton Keynes but made a one-off appearance). His presence in the show generates enormous reservoirs of goodwill, a commodity whose effect it is impossible to underestimate. No, he’s not the greatest actor – he really doesn’t know what to do with his hands – but he puts his solo song over with verve and nerve.
While he brings a slightly homespun quality to the show, this only makes it more intensely relatable for audiences. As is composer Nick Lloyd Webber’s easy-on-the-ears pop score. Eschewing the surging operatic signatures of his father Andrew’s writing, the songs float along with a bright, cheery, tunefulness, and are more intent on provoking laughter than tears with titles like Diets are Crap and Big and Battered.
Mellor’s show may need a bit more polishing before it seeks a West End run, but it’s an entertaining touring production and has genuine charm and presence.