Book: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Director: Drew McOnie
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film Strictly Ballroom– part dance comedy, part Cinderella romance – launched the Australian’s career as a filmmaker of visually arresting, reality-heightening fare such as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, the three films collectively becoming known as the director’s ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’. In this transfer to the West End stage, which comes via a tryout at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, director Drew McOnie concocts a visually thrilling spectacle that effectively transfers its source material to the stage.
Set in a heightened, primary-hued version of the world of top-flight amateur ballroom dancing in Australia, the story (adapted by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce from their screenplay, in turn based on an earlier play by Luhrmann) sees Jonny Labey’s Scott Hastings, a promising ballroom dancer, become ostracised from his dance teacher mother and the wider dance community when he decides he wants to perform his own moves.
The dancing championships are presided over by corrupt president Barry Fife (Gerard Horan), a rotund, self-obsessed, bewigged character that may have been based upon Bill Hunter’s film portrayal, but which takes on new overtones due to the similarities to another, nonfictional president. That is as far as contemporary references go, however. The rest of Strictly Ballroom exists in a glorious world of sequins and stretch fabric, played up to cartoonish heights.
As befits his choreographic background and CV (In the Heights, Jesus Christ Superstar, On the Town) McOnie excels in making the dance routines dazzle. The troupe of ballroom dancers twirl in unison during the competitive sequences, and loom large onstage throughout the rest of the story (one, for an unknown and unexplained reason, turns up inside a fridge at one point. Best not to ask why.)
In addition to his ability to wring the best out of a dancing ensemble, though, McOnie also excels in wringing the comedy out of the story. It helps that his acting company has the requisite chops – led by Anna Francolini as Scott’s success-obsessed mother Shirley and Richard Grieve as her former dancing, the effete Les Kendall. But the combination of visual spectacle and broad comedy is brought off effortlessly, and with no little charm.
What surprises most is that, while the show is billed as a musical, very few characters do any singing at all. Instead, the play conjures up a narrator-cum-cum-fairy godmother in the shape of new character Wally Strand, who sometimes acts as a dancing competition Emcee but who is more often just hanging around, observing and nudging the characters along.
Will Young plays Strand as a camp, snake-hipped 1970s version of Bruce Forsyth. It’s a characterisation that fits perfectly into Luhrmann’s fantastic interpretation of the real world. It is also the most relaxed and affable performance from Young in many a long year – which is just as well, since not only is he on stage throughout, but he is virtually the show’s sole singer.
Only at key moments, as Strand beatifically lays hands on key characters, are those performers granted the gift of singing a line or two. Otherwise, this is a Will Young concert in all but name, and one which shows off the singer to his best advantage.
The split of dance, acting and song is a strategy which makes for an unusual, if ultimately winning, combination. True, the need to have Young introduce each scene with a description of place is often unnecessary, given that Soutra Gilmour’s set design gives more than enough clarity. But freeing up the performers from a need to sing does ensure a greater deal of energy to be invested in McOnie’s frenetic dance routines.
And nowhere does that investment pay off more than in the hands of the two romantic leads. Zizi Strallen’s Fran, the shy beginner who begins to blossom as she practices with Scott, transforms gradually until she is a high-kicking, captivating dancer, and the chemistry with Labey’s muscular Scott is palpable.
As with the original film, the heightened technicolor world of the ballroom championships nestles alongside a more realistic, urban world of Fran’s Spanish family, an environment which unlocks Scott’s true dance abilities as the couple’s love story begins to blossom.
And while the caricature-like portrayal of ballroom does, on occasion, threaten to become wearisome, there is enough variety and charm to see Strictly Ballroom through.
Reviewed on 25 April 2018 | Image: Johann Persson