Photo by Helen Maybanks

Although the show may not be as memorable as some of the greats, you’ll still have an enjoyable evening, says Laura Sexton who reviewed Fat Friends at Milton Keynes Theatre.

Based on the television show with the same name and written by the award-winning Kay Mellor, Fat Friends – The Musical has set out to bring the characters of Kelly, Kevin, Lauren and co to life, through song and dance. I’ve not seen the TV show so wasn’t familiar with the plot or characters, although I didn’t feel as though this put me at a disadvantage.

The curtains open on a slimmer’s club doing a Zumba class. Fat Friends follows the story of Kelly, a girl who is engaged to be married, who in order to feel her best, fit into her dream wedding dress and love herself, puts herself through slimmer’s classes and extremes to do so, meeting challenges along the way.

Leading the show is Jodie Prenger, who has previously starred in West End shows such as Oliver! after winning the BBC show I’d Do Anything, and other shows like Calamity Jane, alongside countless other credits from stage to TV to presenting.

Prenger as a performer is great, and you can tell that no matter what role she is playing she puts everything into it. Her vocals can easily fill an auditorium, and I’m guessing they would stretch just as far without the use of a microphone. The rest of the cast, which includes the likes of X Factor winner Sam Bailey, Natalie Anderson, Kevin Kennedy and Joel Montague (or Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff at certain venues) have equally as strong voices which harmonise together well.

Despite the obvious musicality of the cast, I found the show to be rather cliché, stereotypical and overacted in parts. It’s not that the performances aren’t good; the script doesn’t quite compete with the abilities of the cast. And that’s not to say that Kay Mellor’s writing isn’t impressive, it perhaps just doesn’t gel quite so well with everything else to produce a quality musical by today’s standards.

Photo by Helen Maybanks

Pictured: L-R Natalie Anderson, Rachel Woodings, Jodie Prenger and Sam Bailey.

The portrayal of the ‘larger lady’ persona was overexaggerated and predictable at times, with Kelly, played by Prenger, appearing to be unintelligent, clumsy and foolish; although attracting plenty of laughter from the audience. Sam Bailey’s depiction of the mother Betty on the other hand was performed as though every single line had the stage direction of ‘unexplainably frightened’ before it.

Rachel Wooding’s performance of sister, Joanne, was one of the highlights of the show; she used humour that was appreciated by the audience with more thought put into it. The role shares similarities to Sheridan Smith’s ‘Rudie’ in Gavin and Stacey and is very much the irritating yet very likeable younger sister character.

Natalie Anderson who plays Lauren, gives a very sweet performance as a Jewish girl running a wedding dress shop who’s not yet found love. Her singing voice suits the role well and of all the characters in the show, I found myself rooting for her the most. Her love interest, the Vicar, Paul, played by Jonathan Halliwell is an equally good character, however he perhaps isn’t given enough stage time for the audience to form too much attachment to him.

I’m not doubting any of the cast’s performing abilities but there’s a feeling that their talent isn’t quite able to completely shine through in Fat Friends. The slapstick, almost pantomime-esk musical is akin to a sitcom, with easy laughs, anticipated jokes, and likeable, albeit stereotypical, characters. 

To sum up the storyline is tricky because there’s so much going on, from Betty almost winning a slimming award, to Kelly fainting from diet pills, to Lauren putting her Jewish beliefs behind to be with the Christian vicar. There are some very relatable themes, about image and weight battles, and ironically it’s all set around Kelly’s father’s fish and chip business.

Photo by Helen Maybanks

Pictured: Natalie Anderson and Jonathan Halliwell.

The scenery works very well. The show is set in Leeds and the effective street scenery with opening windows in which the cast appear out of, I found to be quite endearing. And the use of TV screens to show clips of fake news about Kelly work really well and bring a modern take to the stage. I also thoroughly enjoyed the scene where Prenger sings Beautiful, while in the background Joel Montague waltzes with an anonymous slimmer bride, in a dream-like display.

Despite what the show lacked in parts, I had a very enjoyable evening. And above all else, that is something that the show does very well – it’s full of fun and energy. The audience were on their feet as the curtains closed so clearly the musical caters well for certain tastes. Personally, the show isn’t one I’ll be rushing back to see anytime soon; however, I’m sure there were many in the theatre that night who would.

Fat Friends is currently touring the UK and you can find out the venues it will visit along with details of group bookings, on the website. 

The show review took place at Milton Keynes Theatre. The theatre is large and spacious and has access for all abilities. With a great variety of touring shows visiting this key theatre, this venue is a must for groups in the midlands seeking a theatrical night out. 

Images by Helen Maybanks