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Kay Mellor – Fat Friends - The Musical

Things have got bigger since Kay Mellor first wrote Fat Friends, the Leeds born writer’s diet-club-set comedy drama, which ran for four series between 2000 and 2005. In the intervening twelve years since the series ended, female body image has taken an even more self-conscious turn and diets have grown faddier, while obesity has been on the rise despite this.

It seems timely, then, for Mellor to revisit the world of ardent slimmers Kelly, Betty, Lauren and co, bringing things bang up to date for an even more confusing world of gut-busting exercises and calorie-burning yarns. Mellor has done this by way of Fat Friends – The Musical, a brand new touring stage show which has already checked in to Edinburgh Playhouse prior to runs in Glasgow next week, with Aberdeen to follow.

“I’ve wanted to do a musical for years and years,” says Mellor. “I wanted to watch something sat in an auditorium where the power of music can elevate a moment and an emotion onstage. A producer had come to me to write the book for a different project, but in the end that didn’t work out, and I thought, you know what, if I’m going to do a musical, I should do something that matters personally to me.”

Mellor found herself thinking about body image again.

“People are bigger now than they’ve ever been before,” she says, “and I think we’re much more aware of obesity. At the same time, there are people commenting more on the size of people.”

This led her back to Fat Friends.

“I loved all my characters,” says Mellor, “but after the fourth series I decided against doing a fifth one. I thought I’d said what I had to say, and that was that, but now we’re living in different times, and things are much worse. People are buying pills off the internet and taking any old rubbish to try and get thinner, and that’s a recipe for disaster. The slimming clubs are getting richer, but people are still getting fatter. Three-quarters of the nation are on some kind of diet, so I think what we’re doing with the show touches everybody’s lives. Food isn’t like cigarettes or alcohol. You can stop smoking, and you can stop drinking, but you can’t not eat,  or you’ll die. That’s the bottom line in this world.”

As with the first series of the TV version, Fat Friends – The Musical is set in the run up to the wedding of Kelly, here played by Jodie Prenger, and Kevin, as all involved attempt to get fit for the big day.

“I don’t want to be po-faced,” says Mellor. “I want to make people laugh and sing, and then think. Every writer has their way of doing things, and that’s mine. I love to hear people laugh and then see them buy the t-shirts saying diets are crap. My overall message is a really positive one, and I want everyone to leave the theatre with a smile on their face, but there’s other stuff going on as well. The show brings things up to date, and looks at how things can go viral, and how people have their fifteen minutes of fame, all these things that I couldn’t look at in the series in and depth.”

Mellor’s most high profile stage play prior to Fat Friends – The Musical was A Passionate Woman, a loving reimagining of the experience of her own mother’s affair, and which first appeared at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1992, before transferring to the West End. The play has been revived several times since, with Mellor herself playing the lead in one production, before she eventually adapted it for a two-part TV drama in 2010 starring Sue Johnston and Billie Piper.

By her own admission, Mellor is no expert on musical theatre, though her pairing with composer Nick Lloyd-Webber, with whom she worked on Love, Lies and Records, sounds like a happy collaboration.

“I don’t come from a musical theatre background,” says Mellor, “so sometimes I hear people gasp at something I put in a lyric. Nick says you can’t do that, Kay, and I say, why not? He’s a middle class man from the south of England, and I’m a working class woman from Leeds, but he gets it, and it gels.”

If Mellor sounds like some of her straight-talking characters when she says this, it’s understandable. Mellor has been putting words into the mouths of ordinary people in everyday situations transformed into popular drama for more than three decades now, ever since her early days on TV soaps Albion Market, Coronation Street and Brookside, as well as children’s shows, Dramarama and Children’s Ward, the latter of which she co-created with Shameless writer Paul Abbot.

Mellor became an actress after studying at the Leeds-based Bretton Hall College, where alumni who receded her include writers John Godber and Colin Welland. Mellor appeared on TV in Just Us, a children’s family drama she created, and in her own adaptation of Jane Eyre. Much of her writing has focused on the lives of working class women, from Band of Gold, set in the world of prostitution on the streets of Bradford, through to such warm-hearted dramas as Playing the Field, Girls’ Night, Between The Sheets. Post Fat Friends work includes the likes of In the Club and Love, Lies and Records, which starred Scottish actress Ashley Jensen. Most recently, Girlfriends focused on a trio of female friends of a certain age who must face up to the responsibilities life has brought with it.

Last year as well, Mellor was executive producer on Overshadowed, a BBC 3 drama co-written by Irish actress and playwright Eva O’Connor, who has appeared in her own work on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe several times, and who based the series on her own stage play of the same name. Written with younger audiences in mind, Overshadowed was a point-of-view story of a teenage vlogger whose life is turned upside down by an eating disorder. While Mellor has described the series as a companion piece to Fat Friends, it is unlikely that the darkness of Overshadowed would work as a musical. For Mellor, however, right now you get the impression she’s relishing every second of the experience.

“I did a lot of shows back to back last year,” she says, “so really I’m having a little bit of a break. I think one television show a year is enough, and this whole experience of musical theatre is so positive for me, it would be awful if I couldn’t enjoy the fruits of that. I’ve turned things down to do this, and now I’ve done it, I might do another one. But whatever I do, it’s important that I write about what I love in the place I love.”

Mellor is talking about Leeds, the place that provided her with the sorts of community spirit her work is full of.

 “Do you know what?,” she says, “and this is the God’s honest truth, when we were doing the show in Leeds, I kept bumping into this woman who came to see it three times, and I asked her why. She said it just made her feel great. I was so touched by that. If I’ve made somebody feel good, I’ve done my job, and in this day and age of uncertainty and flux, if I can do that, then that’s great.”

Fat Friends - The Musical, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, April 30-May 5; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, May 21-26.

The Herald, April 26th 2018


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