Thursday, 12 April 2018

Theatre review: Strictly Ballroom

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Strictly Ballroom has its press night on the 24th of April.

I know it officially makes me a Bad Gay, but I haven’t seen Baz Luhrmann’s film Strictly Ballroom. This shouldn’t matter, of course, in seeing Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s stage adaptation, and there’s certainly nothing so complex about the story that you’d need to already know it going in. Still, I can’t help but feel that not already being a fan of the 1992 film – as most of tonight’s packed preview audience clearly were – meant something about Drew McOnie’s production was definitely lost on me. Scott Hastings (Jonny Labey) is an amateur ballroom dancer competing in the Australian Federation, which insists that all entrants dance only the strictly prescribed steps; this is mainly because Federation president Barry Fife (Gerard Horan) has a lucrative side-line selling instructional videos that teach the set routines. Scott isn’t satisfied with only dancing someone else’s steps though.

His tendency to make up his own moves during competitions make him unlikely to win the championship, so he has difficulty hanging on to a partner until newbie Fran (Zizi Strallen; part of the Z-series of Strallens that also includes Zelda, Zorba and Zuul) asks him to give her a chance.

The cast also includes Anna Francolini as Scott’s chain-smoking, pushy mother, Stephen Matthews as his put-upon father (was the character… quite so sex-offendery in the film?) and Eve Polycarpou as Fran’s Abuela, which at this point I think McOnie might actually think is her name. (Not that Polycarpou’s entirely typecast, she played a Greek Yaya in Sunset at the Villa Thalia a couple of years ago. Yaya is Greek for Abuela.) Technically a jukebox musical, the show features medleys of over 40 hit songs, almost all sung by Will Young as emcee Wally Strand.

In fact the show doesn’t feel like a musical at all, as the music is entirely there to provide backing to the story and its dance sequences, rather than actually feeling integrated into them. And while a couple of songs most associated with the film – notably “Love Is In The Air” – get reprised, none get sung in full. I joked before going in that in order to fit that many songs in we’d only get a couple of lines of each, but that didn’t turn out to be far off.

A bit of high camp should be right up my street but I think a few things conspired to make this leave me surprisingly cold: Labey is a bit of a charmless lead so despite good work going on around him, particularly with Strallen selling awkward enthusiasm, it’s hard to get invested in the central characters. Soutra Gilmour’s set puts the band onstage, pushing most of the action downstage to where it’s very hard to see from the Grand Circle. And ultimately the production’s target audience is fans of the original film, which by all accounts it seems to recreate quite faithfully. I’m afraid it didn’t make a new fan in me, but for those already hooked this is clearly going to be a hot ticket.

Strictly Ballroom by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce is booking until the 21st of July at the Picadilly Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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