Mrs C and I are huge Strictly fans so it was with great delight that we unexpectedly received two surprise tickets for last Saturday’s matinee at the NIA in Birmingham. As you would expect, the place was completely packed. What strikes you when you enter the auditorium are both the expectant buzz and the extraordinary stage. The band and judges are at one end of the arena, surrounded by an extravagant light wall, and the whole central area is devoted to dance floor. Two large video screens help you see in close detail what your eyes can’t focus on, as well as being used to give amusing backstage insights.
The host is Kate Thornton, of whom I don’t know a lot, but she’s really good at the job, as well as looking thoroughly gorgeous. Friendly and reassuring when required, but also quick-witted at stabbing a telling remark or two along the way. Actually one thing I hadn’t expected was how generally funny the whole show is. Whether it’s Kate or the judges, the dancing or the backstage shots, there is a lot to laugh at in this show, much more so in fact than on the TV programme.
Len, Bruno and Craig are the three judges and each play up their own characters admirably throughout the entire show. Len continues to rewrite the language with his strange metaphors for enthusiasm; Bruno has his over-the-top reactions and his strange body language for enthusiasm, and Craig nicely wallows in his dour reflections that may or may not encompass enthusiasm. Both Bruno and Craig “lost it” at one stage and were helpless with laughter, which was an additional delight for the audience. Craig directs the show, and has included some judgely dancing in some of the big “entr’acte” numbers, some of which he couldn’t quite perform himself, which was a laugh.
Then of course there are the contestants and their professional partners. I was quite surprised how quiet the professionals were in the post-dance chats with Kate. Personally I get attached to the professionals just as much (if not more) than with the celebrities because you get to know them over the series, so I would have perhaps liked a little more chat from them. They do have to do a lot of dancing, mind.
The show starts with a big dance from the professionals alone and to be honest, I thought it was under-rehearsed as none of them seemed to finish together and on time. I was surprised at that. They were definitely better in their individual dances with their partners and in the subsequent group dances.
From the moment the couples are introduced there is absolutely no doubt who is going to win – Harry and Aliona. There’s something about Harry (I wonder what it might be that all those middle aged women see in him) that must appeal to about 98% of the audience, as far as the allocation of whooping and cheering is concerned. To support the underdog, I was determined not to vote for him, even if he was the best, as his victory was a forgone conclusion from the start.
Each couple dances twice. First on was Robbie Savage, partnered with Katya Virshilas. What did you make of Robbie in the TV series? I thought he was surprisingly good. Well, in the middle of the live arena, he was surprisingly awful! Yes he sells himself really well, and it’s thoroughly entertaining, but actually his dance skills are Really Not There. Katya herself, whilst talking to Kate, said that Robbie basically wasn’t very good – Kate had to remind her they were meant to be on the same side.
Second were Anita Dobson and Robin Windsor. They did their Charleston, and highly enjoyable it was. I didn’t really feel that the crowd got behind them that much, probably still suffering palpitations after the sight of Robbie’s chest. The judges were pretty impressed though. Amongst the professional dancers, I do think that Robin Windsor stands out as a really strong performer.
Third was another chest opportunity, Mark Foster with Natalie Lowe. He’s the only celebrity in the show not to have been in the most recent series, and was clearly at a disadvantage, but he performed reasonably well. Natalie’s a terrific dancer, isn’t she. She even threw in a wardrobe malfunction in her second dance for good measure, so that we almost saw both their chests.
Next was – I think – Nancy dell’Olio who is dancing here with Artem Chigvintsev. I know someone who has met Nancy dell’Olio, and he says she’s frankly bonkers. I saw no reason to doubt his word. Her performance is very funny – especially the second dance when she cheats and has both Artem and Robin to help her – but she rarely dances a step. I couldn’t tell how genuine or acted Artem’s rather sad and resigned look is when Nancy says they need to change the choreography – he just gently backs away into the darkness. Very funny stuff.
Then you have what you might call “The Big Three”. Jason Donovan with Kristina Rihanoff first; they did their Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” number and then their Argentine Tango. Jason made a slight boo-boo on the first dance, which I confess I didn’t notice, but did a sensational tango and so I decided I would vote for them.
Next was Chelsee Healey with Pasha Kovalev, who must think he has fallen on his feet considering this was his first series. They danced just as well as they did on the TV and gave a terrific show. The judges were wowed.
But everything else was eclipsed by Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani. When you watched the last series at home, you might have felt that the popularity for Jason, Chelsee and Harry was more or less even-stevens, and that only a poor performance by one of them would have led to more votes for one of their opponents. Not a bit of it. If this audience is anything to go by, Harry must have received more votes than all the others put together. You could barely hear anything else in the arena above the cheers for him, and he and Aliona executed two perfect dances, getting a maximum 60 points from the judges. He is the only celebrity participant who really could be a professional dancer. If he wants to change his career away from drumming, I reckon every door is open.
They whittled it down to a final two of Harry and Chelsee but the eventual winner was never in doubt. In a sense, the weakest part of the show is that the competition element seems a little unnecessary. The series has already taken place, and the winners and runners-up have been decided. If there had been more competitors from previous series, against whom you couldn’t so easily assess this series’ celebs (imagine if Zoe Ball and Mark Ramprakash had been part of the line-up, for example) the competition would have been more interesting. Nevertheless, it’s churlish to criticise it on those grounds. It’s a terrific lively show, colourful, spectacular, engaging and very funny too. I would certainly recommend it.