Pros: Great comedy and a cracking list of musical numbers.
Cons: There is a lot of set and sometimes the action feels a little cramped.
First off, I should say that I enjoyed every minute of Strictly Ballroom The Musical; it is tip tip, non-stop entertainment. But there’s a small caveat, because if this show were a dancer it would be Tina Sparkle, not Scott Hastings; it is as much a slave to the original film as Tina and her acolytes are slaves to the Federation rules. Like the most unhinged of the ballroom dancers it so gleefully parodies, this show throws absolutely everything into the mix. Props are wheeled on and off endlessly, neon signs fly up and down, an A-board advertising a fish and chip shop has a 30 second, entirely pointless cameo. Even when we travel to the sultry and firelit Latin quarter, for a welcome respite from the hysteria of the ballroom world, a few luridly coloured backing dancers are thrown in for good measure.
Of course, it would hardly be a Baz Luhrmann show without eye-popping colour and extravagant costumes. The designers have delivered both, in spades. Ballgowns come in a rainbow of headache-inducing shades (in some cases with matching eye-shadow), while training lycra is a riot of clashing colour. As the competition intensifies, so does the costume game, until one couple is dressed in giant sequins that look like prehistoric scales. In Kendall’s dance studio the mirrors are in contrast colours, the walls are lined with neon coloured lights. It’s all frenzied and vulgar and brilliant.
It’s also very funny. Physical comedy is as cartoonish as the colour schemes, with implausibly contorted legs, gurning, long, long, long, drawn out howls and dazzlingly white teeth smiling cheesily from a fake-tanned face. There is also lots of lovely wordplay, particularly from Barry Fife, the proto-Trump head of the Australian Ballroom Dancing Federation. He has a fine line in colourful malapropisms, and his big fish, small pond absurdity is sent up so beautifully when he describes Scott’s non-regulation dance moves as ‘deviant and depraved’! This is a show that revels in the ridiculous.
There is dancing, as well. Lots of dancing. The choreographical challenge is that much of that dancing is meant to be the butt of the show’s joke, so whilst it’s entertainingly zingy, it’s not all that beautiful. Added to that, the dancers often seem cramped by the enormous amounts of set. The most satisfying dances are, with good reason, those of the ‘non-dancers’, Rico and Doug.
The biggest departure from the film is the introduction of Wally Strand, a part that, if it wasn’t created with Will Young in mind, probably should have been. Wally is part compere, part commentator, a wry observer who’s not above a snarky remark but has a remarkable ability to pick the perfect song for every occasion or emotional state. It’s a brilliant collection of musical numbers, featuring clever arrangements of songs from the last century. Young, who sings all the songs, shows impressive vocal versatility, from the wistful theme tune, Love Is In The Air, to a rather more down and dirty Slave to the Rhythm and the rambunctious finale, It’s The End Of The World As We Know It. He really is the glue that holds the show together, and a surprisingly magnetic presence on stage.
The thing about a Tina Sparkle is that she may be dancing to someone else’s tune, she may be gaudy and formulaic, with a few too many bells and whistles, but she does know how to put on a show. The same is true of Strictly Ballroom The Musical, and I grinned from start to finish.
Book: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Director & Choreographer: Drew McOnie
Musical Director: Ben Atkinson
Box Office: 0844 871 7630
Booking Link: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/strictly-ballroom-the-musical/piccadilly-theatre/