Theatre Review: Strictly Ballroom, Piccadilly Theatre ‘A Lot of Love for the Famous Film’

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Now, a musical adaptation of a famous, nay iconic, film comes with a very high degree of risk, even if that film was, itself, an adaptation of a stage play. Add to that the cultural impact of Strictly Come Dancing, which was built on the viral success of Baz Luhrmann’s film (the BBC blending it with a show from its archives to breathe new life back into ballroom), and the level of expectation facing this musical is…. Well, it’s high.

And it’s high in many ways, not just in the need to adhere to its famous fairytale-esque plot that blends a bit of Cinderella with a dash of The Ugly Duckling. There’s also the stylised use of deliberate send-up of stereotypes to include, as well as exaggerated high-camp comedy and humour, and gaudy visuals, as well as the desire for sequins galore.

It’s big budget stuff! And a hell of large pre-existing fanbase to appease. So, has this new musical done enough to satisfy the large audiences that will no doubt be wanting to see it? Hmmm…. A bit. Sort of. There’s certainly a hell of a lot of love for the famous film amongst the show’s creatives and they’ve slavishly adhered to the film’s dialogue and visuals, but – I suppose almost inevitably – it lacks some of that magic stardust that made the original film so irresistible.

Much of the plot is familiar – Scott Hastings (here played by Eastenders and Dance Dance Dance star, Jonny Labey) may be the most brilliant dancer in Australia but his rebellious demands to use his own non-Federation dance steps in his pursuit of victory at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship has caused waves amongst not just the Australian Dance Federation, but also in his family who run their own ballroom dancing business.

Paul Mercurio dazzled as the egotistical but breathtakingly talented Scott in the film and it’s fair to say Jonny Labey can’t quit recreate that brilliance here. He tries, bless him, but it’s all a bit too shouty and in his hands this rebel with a cause is more petulant and juvenile than arrogant and confused.

That emotional distance from the main character is only exaggerated by the decision to have the entire story narrated to us by a new character, Band leader Wally Strand, who is played by Will Young. Will certainly enjoys the high-camp tone of the production, but the night I saw him, he was a bit too hit and miss, and he struggled with some of the musical numbers (all of which he sings, which is impressive) such as Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself and Grace Jones’s Slave to the Rhythm. Those tracks were way away from his vocal range and style.

The combination of these two issues does give this production issues. But what just about saves it is the story’s Ugly Duckling – Fran (Zizi Strallen). Zizi has a musical theatre background, having starred in Follies, Mary Poppins and Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man – and it shows. She lights up the stage as the seemingly delicate and often sidelined ‘Just Fran’, one of the beginners in the ballroom dancing school run by Scott’s mum. Her personal arc from an introverted shy girl driven by her passion for Scott and for self-expression to emerge as full-blown dancing queen is executed to perfection. She doesn’t put a foot wrong, not once, and she is the heart and soul of this musical.

Indeed, it is her family with their Spanish heritage that is the highlight of this whole production. Of course, much of the budget has gone to the more traditional ballroom scenes with their fantastic outfits (Catherine Martin’s costume designs are just full-on wow!) but the emotional power and the stunning choreography captured by Director & Choreographer Drew McOnie in the famous scene where Fran’s father (Fernando Mira) teaches Scott how to Pasodoble sent shivers up my spine. It is ASTOUNDING.

And this is just one example that demonstrates the love the creatives have for Baz Luhrmann’s film (Baz also wrote the book for this musical btw). By focusing the most stunning footwork into this comparatively simple scene, it shows that they truly understand the story and the importance this plot point has on Scott’s development of, what becomes, his game-changing routine.

What also demonstrates this love for the film is the uncanny visuals in the production’s design. Yes, the dresses are gorgeous, yes there’s enough sequins here to take your eye out, but each character – their over-coiffed hair, their blue eyeshadow, their 80s style dress – is a doppelganger for their movie counterpart. And the effort that has gone into squeezing a live band AND choreography into the confined space of the Piccadilly Theatre stage is impressive (it may be a comparatively big stage theatre-wise but it’s minuscule in terms of ballroom floors).

So, sure, this show has its issues. And an awful lot of money had been needed to replicate so much of the fantastical elements of the film (and so I wish this production every success) but though I may have had my grumbles, I couldn’t hear a single criticism from the crowd as they flooded back out into the London night after the show finished. Each of them had eyes that dazzled and broad smiles. And, needless to say, many were attempting a good shoe-shuffle of their own as they headed towards the tube.

Piccadilly Theatre, London, to October 20, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Johan Persson.

Production Team:
Director & Choreographer: Drew McOnie
Set Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Costume Designer: Catherine Martin
Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson
Sound Designer: Gareth Owen

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