Bringing Kay Mellor's Fat Friends to the Norwich stage
PUBLISHED: 16:09 12 March 2018 | UPDATED: 16:09 12 March 2018
Wit, warmth and weight loss combine in the stage musical of Kay Mellor's much loved TV show Fat Friends, featuring an all-star cast, brings the loveable characters and the local slimming club to Norwich Theatre Royal.
“There is laughter, crying because it is a heart-warming story and there are plenty of cringe moments,” says Natasha Hamilton of the new stage musical version of Kay Mellor’s TV show Fat Friends.
Hugely successful and enormously loved, the ITV show ran from 2000-2005 and followed the fortunes of members of a slimming club in Leeds run a formidable weight loss instructor, is arguably what cemented Kay Mellor as one of the UK’s top TV writers.
Written by the BAFTA award winning writer herself, and featuring music composed by Nick Lloyd Webber, whose composer father is Andrew, the stage musical version arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal next week.
Natasha Hamilton, best known for being one third of multi-million selling girl band Atomic Kitten, plays slimming guru Julia Fleshman, the character responsible for many of those cringe moments.
“Julia is quite ruthless and cut-throat and says some things that people normally wouldn’t say,” she adds.
“Since starting in this I’ve been on a quite tough journey with Julia because initially she was quite stuck up and quite posh. It was a different way of playing the character, but we’ve took her on a journey, made her Scouce and she has become even more feisty. But the background to her is that she has created this slimming company from nothing, built it up with her own bare hands.
“She comes from quite humble beginnings herself so she has had to be ruthless to get where she is, hence why she comes out with these one-liners that draw audience gasps. People react to the character in different ways, some laugh while others are like ‘did she really say that?’ When I got Kay’s script I was ‘oh no, how can I say this on stage without cringing or laughing?’ But after weeks of rehearsals you just become toughened to it. It all adds to the story.”
Natasha Hamilton is joined in the all-star cast by X Factor winner Sam Bailey, Emmerdale actress Natalie Anderson, and former Coronation Street star Kevin Kennedy, who plays long-suffering husband and dad Fergus whose daughter Kelly, played by Jodie Prenger, is desperate to stop piling on the pounds.
Many of the TV show’s most loveable characters feature in the musical put through their Zumba paces at their local branch of Super Slimmers by the lovelorn Lauren whilst Kelly fantasises about fitting into the wedding dress of her dreams.
The show centres around the upcoming wedding of Kelly and Kevin. Kelly has dreamt about her big day but having put on a lot of weight, her mother - yoyo dieter Betty - has been trying to encourage her to slim down for the big day. Betty recently lost five stone and she’s up for Super Slimmer of the year.
Kay Mellor was originally inspired to write Fat Friends because so many people she knew were on a diet.
“I was thinking why are people obsessed with their weight? I became interested so I thought I would join a slimming club. I went to a meeting wearing heavy shoes and filled my pockets with stuff and thought I would get in and find out what was going in,” she said.
“I stood in the queue, paid my fee and got my starter pack, and the woman taking the session asked me to stand on the scales and then said I was two stone overweight, and I needed to lose half a stone first. My target weight was apparently nine stone, which I haven’t weighed since I was 17.
“For a small time, I became fixated on losing weight. You become fearful of going to the slimming club and you haven’t lost weight or you put weight on and you are told you are a failure. You are in this system of trying to please the slimming guru and feeling bad about yourself.”
Kevin Kennedy admits the writing of Kay Mellor was his big attraction to the show, even though he admits to having never watched the original TV programme.
“That was a choice really,” he explains. “I didn’t really want to approach this job with any pre-conceived ideas.”
“I think it has moved across magically to the stage and it certainly transfers itself beautifully to the medium of musicals. The songs are all very catchy, you’ll find yourself whistling them.”
From Curly Watts to Fat Friends: Kevin Kennedy on his love of performing
The musical, like the TV show, balances comedy with some serious issues and hope amid the warmth, love and weight loss.
Natalie Anderson, who plays Lauren, said: “The reaction so far has been overwhelming. Everyone seems to connect with the story and the themes of it. It is fabulous to be part of something that you can create. Kay has been brilliant with our characterisations. I feel like I’ve had quite a lot of input into Lauren and she has really changed from what was originally on the page. I love her so much, she is so fun, so neurotic and a little bit crazy but I love all her craziness.
“I come out of the theatre every night thinking that was amazing. The ending of the show is so brilliant and really gets you going. You can’t fail to come off stage and not be in a good mood.”
Jodie Prenger adds: “The rehearsal process was quite hard. There is so much work and dedication put into creating a new show and because of that I’m proud of it. It’s really hard sometimes though because we are all laughing so much...”
Fat Friends and Gavin & Stacey
Created by Kay Mellor, Fat Friends ran on ITV for four series, set around a slimming club in Leeds run by the formidable weight loss instructor Carol (Janet Dibley), who fruitlessly tries to persuade the members of the group to follow the ‘Super Slimmers’ diet. As well as being hugely popular, the series is notable as being where four of the cast — Ruth Jones, James Corden, Sheridan Smith and Alison Steadman — first met, before going on appear in Gavin & Stacey. Corden played teen Jamie who touched the hearts with his quest to shed the pounds. Jones played Kelly who worked in a fish and chip shop and hit many obstacles on her way to losing weight. Alison Steadman’s portrayal of Betty earned her a nomination for Best Actress at the BAFTA Television Awards in 2001. The show also starred a host of other familiar faces including Lynda Baron as Norma Patterson, Richard Ridings as Alan, a popular character despite appearing in just 14 episodes, and Lisa Riley as garden centre worker Rebecca, trying to overcome years of bullying.
• Fat Friends is at Norwich Theatre Royal from March 12-17, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Mar 14/17, £35.50-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk