Strictly Ballroom – Milton Keynes Theatre

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Book: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce

Director: Craig Revel Horwood

Director and co-choreographer Craig Revel Horwood brings a vibrant new show to tour the UK. Based onthe 1992 Baz Luhrmann movie of the same name, Strictly Ballroom is a story set in the world of Australian competitive dance. With a book written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, the musical contains the best elements of the classic film and follows a formulaic fairy tale structure. Whilst visually the show manages to capture the quirkiness of its source material in a series of over-the-top paired tableaux, the storyline is sparse, and the characters fall flat.

It is the story of Scott Hastings, a talented young dancer who dreams of making his own moves and opening the competition up to the public.His ambition proves too much for his dance partner though, causing them to split and Scott finds himself in conflict with the Australian Dance Federation. As we follow him on his journey through the competition circuit, will he make his dream a reality?

Having lost his partner, he finds Fran, the cleaner who has been hiding her beauty and fierce dance talent under a huge pair of glasses. Against the advice of their respective peer groups, they come together and through the medium of ballroom dance create a beautiful relationship and some Latin fusion.

Faye Brookes takes over from Maisie Smith for the duration of the tour as Fran. Having led several large tours, she is a safe pair of hands and she brings a level of gravitas to the show. She has a cuteness that endears her to the audience but, as such an incredibly competent performer, it is sometimes evident that she has more skills than she is trying to portray. There is never really a true underdog persona as she fits so neatly with the surgical precision of the ensemble. She has a nice chemistry with Edwin Ray who is covering the part of Scott on Press Night. Whilst they are aesthetically a pleasant pairing, they very much have a sibling chemistry and lack the sexual tension that is craved from the couple.

Ray is solid in the leading role, with clean vocals and impressive physical prowess. He does his best with the content that he has, but the character development of Scott Hastings is lacking which makes any emotional investment from the audience difficult.

The soul of this show comes in the form of Jose Agudo in his fiery characterisation of Rico, Fran’s father. He gives a long overdue boost of adrenaline to the show. As the singular character with any kind of emotional depth, Rico is fiercely protective of his daughter and emotionally invested in her happiness, which he happens to express through Latin dance.

He is powerful and masculine as he teaches Scott the Paso Doble in a sequence that makes the entire ticket price worthwhile. The aggression and passion he puts into the number is as palpable as the beat stamped by the ensemble. The partnership between Agudo and Karen Mann (Abeula)is thoroughly believable. Ying and Yang, they represent balance within Fran’s life and bring a wholesome dynamic to the narrative arc of the story. Whilst both are playing very archetypal characters, they are never caricatures – a trap that some of the other supporting roles fall into.

Mark Walters has managed through the design to capture the off-kilter framing of the movie, but also the farcical nature of the story itself. All the action takes place within a circular space of bent and broken bits of ballroom flooring. The jagged edges are strewn with ostrich feathers and fairy lights, encapsulating the cutthroat world of ballroom at a glance. Cleverly, it looks like the ballroom has been captured through a fisheye lens on a camera which is of course an iconic feature of the original movie. The curve of the set not only frames the exquisite movement but amplifies it as it warps the dimensions. Ingeniously concealed set pieces slide in and out of individual floorboards seamlessly to create lightning-speed transitions between scenes. Having a constant hard set in this way with adaptable camouflaging means that the show is kept in a state of perpetual motion, highly fitting given its subject matter. Walters’ approach to costume design works as a wonderful contradiction. There is on the one hand the world of ballroom, with their exquisite costumes and terrible cartoon wigs and on the other hand, Fran and her family, Scott and his Dad who stick out with their natural hair and their muted costumes as they are rooted in the real world.

It is this juxtaposition between the bubble of the dance world and human reality that should drive the show but it seems to have stalled within its own bubble. Revel Horwood and Jason Gilkison have created a well-choreographed show to a high level. The movement is slick and laser focused. Each of the performers is of the highest calibre and has heaps of technical ability. This is a show that has accepted and celebrated its own farcical nature, but it simply lands wide of the mark. All the elements required to make a breath-taking piece of theatre are present here, a talented director, a triple-threat cast, excellent design, and top-level choreography. Unfortunately, Elliot Wheeler’s original score is bland as dry toast, and the plot is porous.It is a nice night out, watching good performers, but it is good, not great!

Runs until: 8 April 2023 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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