Piccadilly Theatre, London
Baz Luhrmann’s first of his Red Curtain trilogy has not had a smooth transition to the stage. Australia, Yorkshire, Toronto, and now London’s West End have been the backdrops for numerous versions, try-outs and rewrites. So, for a film so saturated in theatricality, why is Strictly Ballroom a bit of a damp-squib in musical theatreland?
Director/choreographer Drew McOnie does his best to inject a bit of pizzazz into proceedings and the dance routines are very entertaining and skilfully performed. Where this production stumbles is in the mish-mash of a book and its weird refusal to be a ‘musical’.
Chief in the show’s missteps is the inexplicable decision to create a narrator/balladeer role in the guise of Wally Strand (a sequined and mustachioed Will Young). Rather than guide us through the outlandish world of Australian amateur ballroom competitions with wry humour, I found the character’s constant interjections an irksome distraction – just as I was getting invested in Scott and Fran’s relationship up pops Wally to offer some inane comment.
If the role was tailor-made for Young, then I assume it was an attempt to add a bit of a Cabaret, Emcee-type frisson, but the character is neither edgy enough (the closest we got to near-the-knuckle humour is Young flipping the ‘V’ to an audience member trying to film the show), nor integrated into the story enough to be necessary.
The rest of the book is pretty much taken verbatim from the film. Such was the case that I was anticipating each line before it came with around a 98% success rate. Now, this may say more about me than it does the production. As a self-confessed mega fan of the film I had high hopes, and part of me did fangirl when much-loved quotes and moments were realised on stage.
Yet this line-for-line re-creation has the surreal quality of being akin to a cosplay convention or re-enactment event. I was reminded of the popularity of Rocky Horror screenings where fans act out the action in complete synchronicity with the film.
Musically, the production certainly has its highs. Namely those lifted from the film’s soundtrack. Young’s rendition of ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ are lush highlights in a score that otherwise doesn’t quite know where it stands. Music consultant, Anton Monsted (I assume it is he that is responsible), has raided the dukebox for every 80’s and 90’s song with the word ‘dance’ in the title. ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Dancing With Myself’, ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’… you get the gist. Yet, bizarrely, these numbers get only the briefest of outings. A line or two of one song then we’re harshly cut off and the next begins. Too brief to be medleys, and altogether jarring, the music smacks of a sort of shame, a refusal to be an out-and-out musical.
This is exacerbated by the fact that Young sings everything. I was craving big choruses, ‘I Want’ songs and an all-important ‘Eleven O’Clock’ number. By having Wally sing alone we are robbed of insight and a connection with the characters that solo numbers, duets and ensembles can provide. Furthermore, for what is one of the all-time great film finales, having Scott and Fran’s dramatic and triumphant solo Paso Doble (in the film danced to the ‘rhythm’ of audience applause) danced to unwelcome musical interjections of ‘Freedom’ robs the moment of its intensity.
So, again, the music removes us from the action. My initial reaction to the show was that it was like watching the film while having a Will Young album playing in the background – both lovely things in their own right (Young’s voice is truly spectacular), but they fail to blend together in theatrical harmony.
Soutra Gilmore’s scaffold-dominant set is incongruously dystopian. This only furthers the impression that McOnie, Monsted and Co. are intent on creating a postmodernist take on what is essentially a piece of highly entertaining fluff. Not all theatre has to be deep and meaningful, but knowing what you are and embracing it should be the first step to success…
I feel I’ve been overly harsh up to now. There are moments of elation in McOnie’s production. The flamenco sections are marvellous and the use of Bizet’s ‘Habanera’ is a great example of musical DJ-ing. As Rico, Fernando Mira makes a big impression with his limited stage-time when he shows Scott how to Paso Doble. Gerard Horan is suitably loathsome as the Trump-esque Barry Fife. And Zizi Strallen and Jonny Labey play it just right as the central duo. Their performances are honest, unjaded and heartfelt, with a believable chemistry that had me rooting for them. McOnie’s choreography for ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ highlights the couple’s spark as they dance an electrifying rumba without ever touching. Moving together instinctively and with tender abandon, this moment demonstrates how elements of the film can be enhanced and improved on stage.
In summary, stage adaptations of films should be justified by bringing something new to a well-known story, and Strictly Ballroom misses the mark on this point. Fans of the film will enjoy seeing their favourite characters brought to life, and McOnie showcases his talents as the leading choreographer of his generation, but the main effect this production has had for me is to remind me just how much I love the film, and how difficult it is to recreate the nostalgia of childhood favourites in a more cynical and fast-paced age.
Strictly Ballroom is currently booking until 20thOctober.
Cast of Strictly Ballroom.
Credit: Johan Persson.