Waitress is set in a backwater town in a southern state of the US, specifically in roadside refuelling spot Joe’s Pie Diner. Here, a waitress and talented pie chef Jenna (Katharine McPhee, who transfers with the show from Broadway) is hoping to bake herself a better life and escape from her abusive husband Earl (Peter Hannah) with the help of her friends – fellow waitresses Becky (Marisha Wallace) and Dawn (Laura Baldwin). As a plot, it’s eye-rollingly unoriginal. But the thing about Waitress that first piqued interest when news broke of its transfer from Broadway to the West End is the fact it’s the first musical in the history of Broadway to boast an entirely female creative team.
Writer Jessie Nelson has adapted Waitress for the stage from Adrienne Shelley's 2007 film of the same name, while Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus directs the play. Singer-songwriter Sara Barielles, who won a sting of Grammy nominations for pop hit 'Love Song' in 2007, completes the set.
Katharine McPhee playing Jenna in Waitress
The problem is, despite the musical’s all-female creative team, it all feels incredibly dated. We have a female protagonist who is passionate about cooking but doesn’t believe in herself. She falls pregnant with her abusive husband’s child, admits she doesn’t want the baby, but refuses to even consider getting an abortion when the option is presented to her.
Jenna’s attitude to her situation isn’t the only outdated thing about Waitress. The team of female creatives have gone against the grain in a climate that’s begging for empowering female stories and a greater variety of narratives, to bring audiences a carbon copy of every predictable 90s romcom, while painting a world in which each white male is far more powerful than his female counterpart and all male-female relationships are hugely problematic.
Poor old Jenna is landed with not one but two dodgy suitors: her husband who, despite being emotionally and physically abusive, insists Jenna is the only person he’s ever loved and won’t let her leave him no matter what. Then there’s the charming but very married Doctor Pomatter (David Hunter) who Jenna begins an affair with. He’s overseeing her pregnancy but dopily suggests they go on a coffee date despite his earlier advice for her not to drink coffee while pregnant.
Dr Pomatter (David Hunter) and Jenna (Katharine McPhee) in Waitress
Jenna’s friends don’t fare much better, either. Dawn goes on one date with the neurotic Ogie (Jack McBrayer) who turns up at her work the next day declaring she will never leave him (and she doesn’t). Becky, meanwhile, ends up settling for someone who metaphorically stamped all over her in an earlier scene. The script is laced with crass jokes made at the expense of female characters – making us yawn – and even the denouement, which could be seen as a happy ending, depicts a resolution for Jenna bestowed on her by a third white man more powerful than her.
The women-to-women relationships also do little to inspire. The three ‘tight’ friends spend a large proportion of their time together worrying about their body image and advising one another to put on more make-up or bake a pie to impress their date.
Plays that feel highly problematic today from a gender point of view are often burdened with a rusty script or a disproportionately white and male creative team. But that’s not the case with Waitress. Yes, it’s an adaptation of an earlier film, but said film was written by a woman and released in 2007 – still very much within the twenty-first century.
Jenna (Katharine McPhee), Dawn (Laura Baldwin) and Becky (Marisha Wallace) in Waitress
Enough about the negatives. What redeems Waitress is its polished slickness, all-round top-of-their-game performances and catchy, powerful songs from Sara Barielles. Sure, several of the numbers are sugared with sickly sweet sentiments, but the general folky-pop style and close harmonies make for appealing listening. Dawn’s big number ‘When He Sees Me’, in part about the fear of online dating, even feels timely and relevant. Then there’s Scott Pask’s stunning set which paints an ever-changing sky that seemingly goes on for days thanks to clever proportioning of background telegraph poles.
Waitress is certainly not for everyone and is up against stiff competition from musicals which feel more ‘now’ – such as Marianne Elliott’s fresh, gender-swapping revival of Company. Baking a pie might solve problems for the characters in Waitress, but it will take more than sugar, butter and flour to woo the West End masses. Still, if you’re looking for a solidly-delivered show that conjures the nostalgia of a 90s romcom, you’ll find it baking away nicely in Waitress.
|What||Waitress, Adelphi Theatre review|
|Where||Adelphi Theatre, Strand, London, WC2R 0NS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Charing Cross (underground)|
08 Feb 19 – 28 Mar 20, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and tickets|