Review: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Leeds Playhouse

Published in The Independent April 7, 2022

It seems wild that the UK hasn’t been treated to a major, full-scale production of Hedwig and The Angry Inch since its West End iteration closed early in 2000 – especially given the subsequent cult status of the 2001 film version.

Certainly, it feels like a smart bit of programming to revive John Cameron Mitchell (script) and composer Stephen Trask’s scrappy, joyful rock musical about a resilient genderqueer performer right now – and to ride the wave of mainstream interest in drag queens by casting RuPaul alum Divina De Campo as Hedwig.

But thankfully, this casting choice is less cynically canny than simply written in the stars: De Campo is made for this part and whips an eager audience into a froth of sheer delight. She has sublime comic timing, delivering both a purring, fabulous on-stage persona and showing plenty of cracks (pun intended; Hedwig and The Angry Inch is full of this kind of innuendo). De Campo’s Hedwig is rackety and raw, with tart asides acknowledging the lack of glamour of her situation.

She holds the audience throughout what is almost a one-woman show, albeit with a live backing band. Hedwig tells us her story with a mordant humour: how she grew up as Hansel behind the Berlin Wall in East Germany, underwent a botched gender reassignment in order to marry an American GI (the “angry inch” being all she’s left with), and ended up in a trailer park in Kansas. There, she fell for a young man, Tommy, with whom she forms a band – before he rips off her songs to achieve solo stardom. Director Jamie Fletcher may have returned to an early version of Mitchell’s script, but it’s also lightly localised, so that Hedwig is now on a tour of indifferent working men’s clubs in the north of England with her rock band, The Angry Inch.
Admittedly, the plotting can be muddy and muddled, skipping back and forth in time, with De Campo playing all parts except her current husband and band member Yitzhak (Elijah Ferreira, giving the most adoring, doting performance possible, like a heart-eyes emoji made flesh). If you haven’t seen the film, it could be confusing, and the relationship between Hedwig and Yitzhak never quite comes into focus.

No matter: this show is such a blast, you’re unlikely to care. It still feels remarkably fresh and original – far from the predictable formulas of many musicals – and the soundtrack rocks, with a fierce, punky energy. De Campo has a gorgeous voice, but she’s not afraid to let rip either, embracing all the rough edges of Trask’s songwriting. The live band are clearly having the most fun too, with Frances Bolley relishing the opportunities for tasty guitar solos and the pomp of a rock performance.
Ben Stones’s smart set, sliced on a diagonal, is two-parts grotty English pub and one part rock stadium, a huge bank of lights ready to dazzle. The design also really leans into the 1980s setting, wittily using an overhead projector and old analogue TV sets to impart information as well as vibes, while there’s a nice use of scratchily hand-drawn animation to illustrate some songs (in a similar approach as seen in the film). The budget has, presumably, been blown in the most glorious fashion on a giant, inflatable gummy bear in bondage gear for the track “Sugar Daddy”.

It’s a suitably surreal moment that sums up the fun, and the creative confidence, of Fletcher’s juicily enjoyable staging. As a night out, Hedwig and The Angry Inch makes for a truly delicious treat.

‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ is at Leeds Playhouse till 23 April, and at Home, Manchester 27 April till 11 May

Holly Williams’s debut novel ‘What Time is Love?’ is published on 26 May

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