They say good things are worth waiting for – well, Strictly Ballroom has been a very long time in the coming! Scheduled to start touring in 2020, its visit to Northampton is a mere two years delayed… that cotton-pickin’ Covid ruins everything! However, it’s finally arrived, but is in a blaze of glory? Based on the 1992 Baz Luhrmann film, which I’ve never seen, I was happy not to know anything about the show before seeing it. From what I gather, I’m not sure I’m really Baz Luhrmann’s target demographic; I started to watch his Romeo + Juliet once and couldn’t take more than ten minutes.
Of course the film lent its name to that great TV show that makes people stay in on a Saturday night – Strictly Come Dancing, and there’s a big overlap between the two enterprises. Not only is TV judge Craig Revel Horwood the director of the show, he’s also co-choreographer with Jason Gilkison, one of Strictly Come Dancing’s big number choreographers. The lead role of Scott Hastings is played by Kevin Clifton, one of the show’s favourite professional dancers, and the role of Fran is being played by Eastenders’ Maisie Smith, who reached the show’s 2020 Grand Final. You could say that Strictly Ballroom has Strictly Come Dancing written all the way through it like a stick of rock.
However, that magical Strictly Zest was lacking in last night’s performance; primarily due to Kevin Clifton being replaced by his understudy, Edwin Ray. Of course, we all understand that no performer can ever be guaranteed; that’s one of the rules of theatregoing, and sometimes an understudy can throw the audience a sensational curveball with a performance that rewrites the show and their own subsequent careers. But it wouldn’t really matter how good Mr Ray was in the role, I’d say that at least 90% of the audience were there to see Kevin from Grimsby, and that initial disappointment can become a hard nut to crack.
Even more important then, that the show should captivate you from the kick-off. Instead we got a rather cringe-inducing vocal welcome from Craig Revel Horwood indulging in an almost parody Australian accent which went on for too long and made my toes curl. This lead into a directorially confusing opening scene with ballroom dancers all vying with each other for prominence in a competition – but I found it very hard to hear their arguments and resentments over the top of the music, quickly realising I was missing out on important characterisation-establishment, which was frustrating. Nor could I understand why it appeared to be Donald Trump who was chair of the judges – as the show progressed I realised that it was just a coincidence that the nasty head of the Dancing Federation, Barry Fife looks like Trump. Or maybe it isn’t a coincidence?
This is a proficient production rather than an outstanding one, but the downsides do considerable harm to the upsides. The band, under the direction of Dustin Conrad, are great; they probably got the best reception of the night when they joined the rest of the cast at curtain call. The costumes work well; the set itself verges on the tawdry, although I admit that might be a deliberate ploy to portray the rather desperate and down-at-heel environment in which the story takes place. I believe the show is pretty faithful to the original film, so I’m doing my best to forgive the horrendous Aussie/smug dancer stereotypes; but I was surprised how generally unlikeable nearly every character in the show is, even those who you would classify on the side of being the good guys. The book is unimaginative and occasionally lame. There’s one scene where the male dancers are all dressed in their underpants for no reason other than a cheap laugh. And the staging seems cramped, even on a huge space like the Derngate stage.
I found myself out of kilter with what appears to be at least one of the messages of the show, namely that in order to succeed, you have to disregard your own personal dreams and obey your parents and authoritarian figures. Our hero Scott Hastings has been learning Ballroom and Latin since he was six, but is now bored of the prescribed steps and moves that are intrinsic to all the dances. He wants to go off-piste dance-wise, and throw in some flourishes and extra pizzazz moves that are not Strictly Ballroom; but that’s his dream and he gets angry when he is thwarted. Everyone tells him that he’s throwing away his talent, and he’ll never win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix that way. Now, to be fair, the world of Professional Competitive Dancing is strewn with rules and regulations, and the scope for going off-piste is fairly limited; so maybe Scott’s plight isn’t that surprising. But it did strike me as delivering a negative message. Those dreams of yours, that creative spark inside you, that thing that makes you special – well, you’d better shelve them if you want to get on.
I also found it hard to accept that young Fran, the infatuated beginner-level dancer who makes all sorts of mistakes when she’s first trying to dance with Scott, comes from a family who are so expert in the Paso Doble, and with whom she holds her own in the big dance scene at the end of the first Act. Yes, it’s musical theatre, and you always have to suspend your disbelief to a certain extent, but when Maisie Smith was clapping and stomping along with all the other Paso experts, I could no longer believe that she was still at her Ugly Duckling stage and wasn’t already the Beautiful Swan. Why would you pass up the opportunity to dance with her but pair with Tina Sparkle (no relation) instead?
However, I can’t just dismiss that Paso scene. It was by far the highlight of the show and is a stunning sequence, with amazing choreography and music, largely due to the sensational contribution by Jose Agudo as Rico. There were times when it had an almost Riverdance effect, overwhelming you with the movement, the music, the atmosphere. It’s the only time the show soars. To be fair, the choreography and performance that accompanies the curtain call is also tremendous; rousing and exciting but never quite lifting many of the audience out of their seats.
Craig Revel Horwood has a fondness for cramming the stage with too much going on, which often gets in the way of the storytelling. I remember his direction of Chess in 2011 which was frankly poor. It’s not as bad here, but there was one scene that had my head in my hands with fury and frustration at the ill-judged staging. The final scene shows Scott and Fran at the Pan-Pacific Championships. Will they win? Or will it go to the alcoholic Ken and his partner Liz? What will Fife’s decision be? Nail-biting moment. Well, we heard it; but couldn’t see it, because one of the other dancing couples stood right at the front of the stage, blocking our view of the three most important people in the scene. I have no idea what their facial expressions were, or how they reacted to his judgment. Not. A. Clue. I think you would only see that important scene if you were sitting dead centre in the middle of the audience. Talk about an anti-climax.
There were some entertaining moments. I enjoyed the sequence that had Fife, Doug and Les all showing us their ballroom moves at the top of their career (despite the awful stereotyping). Maisie Smith is a charming, self-effacing Fran, and you do feel a sympathy for her when she’s side-lined in favour of her more established rival. Edwin Ray has a great singing voice, which perhaps showed how Ms Smith’s is a little underdeveloped; it also took me a long time to realise that when she was singing Beautiful Surprise, it wasn’t (as my ears heard) Pitiful Surprise.
If you’re an aficionado of the film, then I’m sure there will be a lot here that will entertain you; for me, a lot of it just fell flat. You can’t like everything; and I’m not the demographic. Loved the Paso Doble though. Give that man a pay rise. The tour is currently running through till July, but with more dates expected soon.
Production photos by Ellie Kurtz.