Touring –reviewed at the Grand Opera House, Belfast
Guest reviewer: Damien Murray
Book-ended by its ever-popular signature song, this is a fantastic feel-good show for people who remember the popular film with its memorable big hit songs or for those who just want an entertaining night of light-hearted escapism (which, judging by the public reaction, was 99% of the audience).
Although there are some dramatic moments, this rather shallow and cliché-ridden story is never going to be a platform for displaying acting skills, but simply a dance-based showcase for fancy footwork and ridiculously high-energy routines that made me exhausted just watching them.
When you know not to have high dramatic expectations, then you will not be disappointed, but you will be guaranteed to be blown away by this show’s series of storming dance routines for, as a dance-based piece, it proves to be every bit as energetic as one would have expected.
Going back in time to the era of baggy blue jeans, shell suits, work-out outfits, neon leg-warmers and equally bright headbands, it all begins with the mundane and relatively colourless world of welders contrasting in so many ways with the, sometimes sleazy, but always dazzling one of the dancers. Matt Cole’s spectacular and varied routines are well realised by the extremely fit cast, even including choreographed cyclists at one point.
For those who don’t know the story, it is basically about a tom-boyish welder, Alex (Joanne Clifton), with dreams of training to be a professional dancer at an elite dance academy and her relationship with her well-meaning and influential boyfriend, Nick (Ben Adams), who is also her boss.
The sub-plot centres on another relationship – that of her down-on-her-luck dancing friend, Gloria (Hollie-Ann Lowe) and her wannabe, but unsuccessful, comedian boyfriend, Jimmy (Colin Kiyani).
Surrounded by the symbolic brick and metal stage frame, the dual level set may have looked cumbersome at times, but it was very cleverly designed to be both mobile, functional and versatile, using its many steps, projection screens and positioning points to become everything from a ballet studio to a run-down bar and from a work canteen to a nightclub.
I particularly liked the unusual angular performance space that it created at times and the performance space height variations that it allowed and, common to a lot of shows nowadays, I thought the use of the cast moving the props and set worked well for slick and distraction-free scene changes.
Andrew Ellis’ lighting plot was varied (often pulsating to the music) but was also subtle during the more dramatic scenes and very effective at key moments, while the blue and red neon lighting helped to establish the era of the piece.
With such a poor script, director, Hannah Chissick, must have had a difficult job inspiring her cast in the non-dancing parts of the show, but she did capture the frustrating reality of the audition process.
Strictly Come Dancing champion, Joanne Clifton, was a natural on stage as she took the demanding challenges of the dance routines in her stride; totally nailing the films two iconic moments (the chair-drenching Act 1 finale and the Academy audition routine), and, surprisingly for some, coping well with her acting and singing roles.
In many ways, this piece gave former A1 star, Ben Adams, very little to do, as – not being involved in the dance scenes – he had to rely on a few acting moments to show his skills.
I felt he was very much under-used, but, thankfully, as a more romantic character, he did get to use his impressive vocals to good effect, especially in his duets with Clifton.
Both Hollie-Ann Lowe and Colin Kiyani impressed here as the less successful couple, with Lowe capturing her character’s frustration about her general bad luck and life with her failed comedian boyfriend; a role that Kiyani made his own as he realised their relationship was more important than his dreamed about comic career.
Also worthy of mention were Demmileigh Foster as dancer, Tess, who was excellent throughout with great stage presence and top dancing skills, and Carol Ball’s Hannah; a Grand Dame of dance who lives in the past reminiscing about the successes of her glory days with unrealistic hopes for more.
Musical Director, George Carter’s 5-piece band offered solid backing throughout with musical highlights including: the song of dreams and hopes, It’s All In Reach; the female ensemble showing the first signs of what was to come in terms of manic movement during Maniac; the comic routine, Put It Down; the male choral work of Justice; the energetic and almost acrobatic version of I Love Rock And Roll; the duets, Here And Now and Hang On; the Act 1 finale reprise of Maniac; and Where We Belong, which sounded like it was written and performed by Dean Friedman .
Some additional songs for the stage version worked better than others, but it was always going to be difficult to match the quality of the show’s big well-known hit songs.
Finally, What A Feeling at the end of the show was well worth the long wait to see the iconic audition piece recreated, before a long curtain call and an all-dancing finale which gave everyone a chance to throw some serious moves centre stage (even Ben Adams).
It must be said that these dancers worked harder in the finale than most performers do in an entire show … never mind What A Feeling … What A Dance Show … you would be a Maniac to miss it!