The American diner is as ubiquitous and iconic as a slice of mom’s apple pie. The movie versions are seemingly open 24-hours a day with their neon signs flashing a welcome to the poor, tired and needy.
They usually gleam like silver bullets, parked in car lots and roadsides, and they are where misfits gather in the wee small hours to pour out their problems to a hard pressed waitress who’s pulled the all night shift.
Joe’s Pie Diner is the setting for Waitress, a bittersweet US musical import that serves up 27 different types of pies with a big helping of corn on the side.
Waitress was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic (following on from a quirky 2007 movie of the same name) and the West End smash hit is now on a UK tour, opening last night at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre.
The show should have welcomed TV soap star Chelsea Halfpenny, making her first appearance on the tour as Jenna, the eponymous waitress of the title, but instead her stand-in, Aimée Fisher took over the role.
Covid has decimated the theatre business but if there is any sort of upside to the pandemic it is that it has given the industry’s hard-working, often overlooked understudies, an opportunity to step up and make a name for themselves in major roles.
Often the covers have minor parts during a production’s run but they must be ready and word-perfect to take over from a lead at a moment’s notice.
Aimée, whose theatre career to date has been in the ensemble, last night put on the pinny, grabbed a pot of coffee and a Big Ol’ Slice of Live Your Life Pie, and served up a real treat of a performance.
She was bold, charismatic and confident as Jenna, giving an apple pie turn as the champion piemaker trapped in an abusive marriage.
Waitress the stage musical is every bit as oddball as its film counterpart. The marketing gives the impression that this is a bright, bubbly romcom and as sugary as the gooey confections on Joe’s cake stands.
But behind the neon lights and cheesy smiles, behind standout comic turns from Sandra Marvin, Evelyn Hoskins, George Crawford and Matt Willis (yes, he of Busted fame), there is a real, meaty deep-pan story with true emotional heft.
Okay the characters are larger-than-life chichés but they all have heart – well, all except Earl (Tamlyn Henderson) and more of him later – and you’ll find yourselves embracing both their stories and their lives.
The diner is owned by Joe (Michael Starke giving an endearing performance), a wise old bird who eats in his own establishment every day, is particular about his food and doesn’t miss much.
Christopher D Hunt does a cracking job as jaded, short-order cook, Cal, who serves up the pies while wise-cracking, sassy Becky (Marvin) and looking-for-love oddball Dawn (Hoskins) waits on tables with Jenna.
Jenna bakes the diner’s vast selection of scrumptious pies but her home life is a mess. The product of a violent household, she has repeated her mother’s failings by falling for a wrong ‘un.
Redneck Earl spends most of his time drunk, steals Jenna’s wages, is quick to raise a hand and, when he finds out his wife is pregnant, demands that she loves him more than the baby.
Her life has hit rock bottom – until she goes for a check-up and meets the new doctor in town (Willis, proving himself a gifted comic actor).
Everyone in this crazy, mixed-up diner is looking for the blue-collar American Dream but, instead, find themselves a few crumbs of happiness in comfort food and understanding company.
In an industry dominated by men, Waitress is remarkable because it had a female led creative team.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound much but watching Waitress the strength of the story-telling rests with its female protagonists who drive the story along.
The downside to that is that there’s not much sympathy for the menfolk, almost all of whom are either weak, broken or downright dirty dogs.
Jenna’s husband, Earl, is so vile that I’m surprised Henderson doesn’t get booed on a nightly basis. Even too-good-to-be true Dr Pomatter has a dark secret that overshadows his happiness with Jenna.
And god knows what the American Medical Association would make of the good doctor’s conduct with his pregnant pie-baking patient.
Crawford steals your heart as the weird and wacky Ogie who eats whte food on Wednesdays, likes historic battle re-enactments and on-the-spot poetry plus the equally flaky Dawn.
But in truth everyone contributes their own winning ingredient to the show – beautifully written by Jessie Nelson – delivering a recipe for success. There’s not a poor performance.
The cherries on the top come from slick choreography and engaging musical numbers (thank-you Lorin Latarro and Sara Bareilles respectively).
Waitress plays in the Derngate auditorium until Saturday before touring to the rest of the UK. For extensive tour dates go to Waitress.
Understudy Aimée Fisher produces a winning turn along with scrumptious pies in Waitress which opened last night at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre.