IT ALL started with a 23 stone drag queen and character actor called Divine, and ever since, the role of Edna Turnblad in the smash-hit musical Hairspray has been played by a man.
A lady of more than ample proportions, Edna is the larger than life matriarch at the heart of John Waters’ modern day morality tale, currently running at The Playhouse.
Donning the fat-suit in the feel-good production right now is 6ft 4in tall Matt Rixon, so you can imagine my surprise when it was suggested I should undergo the transformation he undertakes each evening (twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays).
At just 5ft 5in, surely I’d be the shortest Edna in the show’s history.
Which is how I came to be in The Playhouse’s star dressing room the other afternoon, being fussed over by Head of Wigs Verity Pitt and Co-Head of Costume Anna Winkler, as Matt himself looked on.
Before anything else could happen, however, I had to first manoeuvre myself into Edna’s massive foam fat-suit.
Not a good look, the grotesque undergarment left me impersonating a plucked turkey.
Thankfully, the audience never get to see the roughly hewn body parts that lie beneath the costumes.
Later, seated at mirrors that run the length of the dressing room wall, Verity went to work.
“First thing we are going to do is the prep for the wig which involves putting a bandage around your head...”
Gripping the bandage and pressing it to my forehead as instructed, Verity pulls it tight at the back, fastening it.
“As you don’t have much hair, we need something to pin the wig on to, so the bandage will help keeps the wig on,” she explains.
On top of the bandage goes a wig cap, basically “a head-shaped nylon stocking,” she laughs.
This is what the wig will sit on the 24-year-old adds, but first it’s time to get made-up.
Starting with a layer of foundation, Verity adds some blusher and sets it all with some powder.
Ordering me to close my eyes she then starts to do her magic.
“Just a touch of eye shadow is needed to soften your eyes, and some eye-liner to give a feminine flick across the top...” she says, as she works, “then some fake eye-lashes.”
“That’ll be a first,” I say, eyes tight closed... “and a last,” quips Matt, laughing in the background.
“Right, you can open your eyes and look now,” says Verity, stepping away.
For just a second, I’d swear that, there, staring back at me from the looking glass, is my mother.”
It’s a very surreal experience.
Verity points out, “It’s quite a simple make-up, just to feminine you a wee bit, nothing too draggy or too over the top. That’s the secret, Edna is not drag.”
“I think that’s key actually,” agrees Matt, “She is absolutely not drag. Edna is a real woman.”
It’s something Divine, who first brought the character to life was quite adamant about too. He famously observed, “What drag queen would allow herself to look like this? I look like half the women from Baltimore.”
All I’m missing now is a wig and costume and with more than 60 wigs on the show, Verity has chosen a ‘dowdy Edna’ look for me, complete with rollers.
“This is a fully-knotted wig made of human hair, set in heated rollers,” she says, popping her creation on my head and pinning it in place before handing over to Anna Winkler, the Co-Head of Wardrobe.
Anna first hands me Edna’s famous elasticated ankle-socks to put on before I slip into a pair of crimson ‘Papal’ slippers - no mean feat when you have suddenly acquired a pair of enormous hips and have absolutely no spacial awareness.
Finally, there’s the out-size housecoat, adorned with fake buttons that don’t fasten - hidden poppers do the job of holding the housecoat closed.
“There’s a quick change by the side of the stage during the song Welcome To The 60s,” says Anna, “we only have about 50 seconds to do a complete costume change, the poppers allow us to just rip the housecoat off.”
Just 15 minutes after the process started, the transformation is complete and it’s time to nip up to the stage to say Good Morning Baltimore for the money shot - Edna, at her ironing board.
“This I must see,” laughs Matt as ‘Mini-Edna’ wobbles her way up a flight of stairs and through the doors that lead to backstage... taking out everyone and everything in her path with those hips as she goes.
Hairspray The Musical, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, until Saturday 17 March, 7.30pm (2.30pm matinee), £22.50-£77.50, 0844-871 3014
THE ORIGINS OF EDNA TURNBLAD
THE larger than life Edna Turnblad made her first appearance in the 1988 cult John Waters movie Hairspray.
Played by Waters’ long time collaborator Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as 23 stone drag queen Divine, the character was an instant hit with film-goers and gave the actor his commercial breakthrough.
In 2002, a Broadway musical version of the film opened with Harvey Fierstein, star of Torch Song Trilogy, in the role.
As the success of the Broadway production introduced a whole new audience to the tale of the fight for a racially integrated society in the Baltimore of the 1950s and 60s, a second film version was released in 2007.
This time Grease star John Travolta donned the fat suit.
In the UK, Hairspray opened on the West End in 2008 when it was musical theatre favourite Michael Ball who made the role his own, although notable stand-ins included Brian Conley and Phill Jupitus.
Over the years, a number of actors have played the role on stage at The Playhouse, including Michael Ball, who starred alongside The Monkees legend Micky Dolenz in 2010, Mark Benton in 2013, Benidorm’s Tony Maudsley in 2015 and the current keeper of the housecoat and curler-encrusted wig, Matt Rixon.