Review – Strictly Ballroom, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th February 2023

Strictly BallroomThey 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.

Scott and FranOf 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.

ScottHowever, 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.

DancingEven 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?

DancersThis 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.

CompetitionI 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.

FranI 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?

PasoHowever, 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.

Scott and FranCraig 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.

More DancersThere 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.

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd August 2021

PriscillaThis production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Royal and Derngate has been the best part of two years in the expectation, with tickets going on sale late summer of 2019, for an original run in April 2020, and finally coming to fruition in August 2021. The tour actually started in September 2019 in Dartford but then had to be postponed in March last year due to the dreaded Covid. Patience is a virtue, they say; but all good things are worth waiting for. And was this show one of them? On the whole, yes. Certainly, this was the first time that most of the good burghers of Northampton had a chance to let their hair down in a theatre and just allow themselves to enjoy a good night out, and they took it with open arms. There was no doubting the sense of release and feelgood fun around the place. It’s been a long time, for example, since I’ve seen perhaps ten or more people from further back in the stalls come to the front of the auditorium just to watch the orchestra perform the play-out at the end, as if they’d never seen one before; I’m assuming – perhaps they hadn’t.

However, this didn’t feel like an ordinary night at the theatre for us, and that might be a reason why I didn’t quite enjoy the show as much as I’d hoped. We’d already been to see ten productions since restrictions were lifted in England, but each of them had been with a socially-distanced audience. Now, for the first time since March 2020, we would be sat next to, behind and in front of real people. And, I must confess gentle reader, thirty minutes before curtain-up I still hadn’t decided if it was worth the risk. Nevertheless, with our faces swaddled in super strength FFP3 masks, which we didn’t remove the entire time we were there, we plucked up the courage to go. And I’m very glad we did – if for no other reason, it broke the back of the fear, because once we were in situ we both felt more or less safe. I would estimate at least 95% of the audience decided in favour of going maskless, so the law of averages tells you that COVID19 will have been doing some swarming around that auditorium last night; we’re just trusting to the double-vaccination and the industrial quality masks.

I’m sure you know the plot; drag queen Tick (Mitzi Mitosis) has avoided his responsibilities as a father and never met his six year old son Benji – but his mother runs a club in Alice Springs and insists that he brings a travelling show to perform at the club so that he and Benji can finally meet. Gathering his old supporting cast of Bernadette Bassenger and Felicia Jollygoodfellow, they take the slow road from Sydney using a battered old bus that they name Priscilla. Via a series of vehicle breakdowns, homophobic attacks, tourist encounters and an understanding mechanic, they finally make their way to The Alice just in time to perform. All this to a soundtrack of unforgettable 70s and 80s disco hits.

One of the repercussions of the pandemic is that the uncertainty of whether a production is going to go ahead or not meant that there were no programmes available for the performance – not even online, which I think is a bit of a swizz. The only way you can find out about the show is by visiting its own website and even then, there isn’t a list of the musical numbers, no name or bio given to the child actor playing Benji, nor details of the writers, and so on. Can’t help but feel the creative team get a bit short-changed by that. But then, it occurred to me that Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a bit like Priscilla, Parable of the Pandemic. Out of work stage performers go on a long and arduous journey before they can finally perform together again. And the show is all about the journey – rather like the last 18 months has been for us all.

I understand that this production of the show is a slightly pared-down version of the original, and I’m not sure that the tweaks have done it any favours. I know comparisons are odious, but we saw the touring production in 2014 at Milton Keynes and my memory of it was that it was funny, glamorous, full of pathos, joyous and – in short – fab. Despite the best efforts of a very talented cast, seven years later, this show strikes me as falling short in all those aspects. The nuanced wit that I remember (with a couple of laugh out loud exceptions) now seems rather crude and obvious; the glamour felt artificial; the pathos was either laid on with a trowel or underwhelming; and there didn’t seem to be much joy at all. The stand-out scenes were those where the homophobia was at its most prominent, with the aggressive pub landlady in Broken Hill, and where Adam/Felicia got beaten up in Coober Pedy; the vicious realism of both situations impacted us all with its horror and injustice.

Probably resulting from the uncertainties of Covid, overall it wasn’t quite as polished a performance as I would have expected, with a couple of the performers occasionally vague as to where they should be standing, the odd timing issue with the orchestra, and a scene that should have been a truly heartfelt moment suffering from sound issues.

Nevertheless, it’s still a very good show, with loads to recommend it. The ensemble cast are excellent, with terrific dancing to Tom Jackson-Greaves’ energetic and expressive choreography; Mr J-G’s experience working with Matthew Bourne in many of his New Adventures productions comes across in many Bourne-like choreographic twists. The ensemble are convincing in both their guises as showgirls and cowboys, which is an achievement all by itself. The three Divas, Claudia Kariuki, Rosie Glossop and Aiesha Pease, who pepper the show with their vocal dynamism, have great stage presence and brilliant voices; it’s such a shame that they’re required so frequently to stand in positions that obstructs our view of them. Talking of which, the big Ayers Rock scene at the end of the show was ruined by the same awkward staging; our three hero/heroines achieving their goals after the most gruelling journey, celebrating in song, only to have their fantastic costumes obscured from the waist down by some corrugated iron. What were they thinking?

Gracie Lai gives a couple of scene-stealing performances as the unpredictable Cynthia (although as time goes on, I feel that Asian stereotype characterisation is beginning to feel slightly dodgy). In the leading roles, Nick Hayes is suitably irrepressible as the bitchy but vulnerable Adam/Felicia, and Edwin Ray brings all his song and dance experience to the central role of Tick. But for me by far the most impressive performance came from Miles Western, who cut just the right amount of elegance as Bernadette, a wounded character slowly finding her feet and a voice of reason against a choir of chaos.

The tour carries on all the way through to November in Glasgow, pandemic permitting. With so much commitment and talent you really hope it comes off for them. Certainly, there’ll be no shortage of audiences supporting them on their way!

4-starsFour they’re (Felicia) Jollygoodfellows!