I was just seven when my mum took me to the cinema to see Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 hit film Strictly Ballroom and, as part of the generation of kids who came home from school and made a beeline to the TV to watch Neighbours, fully appreciated the Australian humour combined with sequins, romance and professional dancers doing what they do best (apart from fake tanning) – bitching.
Imagine my delight therefore, when it was announced that a musical theatre version, directed and choreographed by the great Drew McConie, was to open in the West End, bringing the full spectacle of competitive dance (on stage and back stage) to life with a troupe of some of the best dancers London has to offer.
You might think a young Graham Norton is up there on stage until you realise that it is in fact Will Young, funny and endearing as the black sequinned jumpsuit-wearing compère, Wally Strand, in a radical change from the original film. Young succeeds in holding both the music and the plot together, covering a series of popular rather than original songs, from Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time”, Witney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to Elivis’s “Hound Dog”, each cleverly woven in to provide a narration that’s perfect for McConie’s dazzling choreography, easily as colourful as the rainbow of costumes by four-time Oscar-winner Catherine Martin.
This musical, with a book by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce will be in for criticism due to the lack of original songs, but the fact that the melodies are already familiar makes us far more likely to tap our toes along to the likes of “Happy Feet” and “I’m So Excited”, performed with gusto by the live band on stage. I would far rather have ‘borrowed’ songs that work than a bunch of contrived songs I loathe.
Svelte dancer Scott Hastings (Jonny Labey) gives amateur dancer Fran (Zizi Strallen) the chance to try out to be his new partner, when Liz (Lauren Stroud) has enough of him jeopardising their chances by breaking the Federation dance rules by dancing his own steps. The blonde-wig-wearing president, Barry Fife (played by Gerard Horan) is intended to share similarities with Donald Trump, and the nightmare scene, where he wrestles with his rule book being thrown away as dancers spring out from under his bed is sheer hilarity.
Scott discovers along the way, not only that it’s far easier to work with an inexperienced dancer, but that the true freedom of the art form is his to fight for, whilst imparting Fran with the confidence to let go of her fears and trust him completely. It’s the story of the fairytale The Ugly Duckling all over and Strallen is utterly convincing throughout the transformation; from glasses-wearing geek to feisty Latino stunner. I particularly enjoyed the scene when Fran’s grandmother, Abuela (Eve Polycarpou) and father Rico (Fernando Mira) teach Scott the key to the Paso Doble in an electrifying display featuring a guitarist. And boy did those lessons pay off – Labey and Strallen are magnificent together.
Soutra Gilmour’s sparse yet effective design allows for fast changing scenes, as do the series of props including a Coca Cola dispenser. Howard Hudson’s lighting effects are key components of a joyful production which fully deserved the standing ovation I participated in on press night. They’ll doubtless receive many more from a West End audience wallowing in this deliciously camp new work. Strictly Ballroom feels as if it possesses that magical, hard-to-come-by ingredient, longevity.
Strictly Ballroom at the Piccadilly Theatre, 16 Denman St, Soho, London W1D 7DY. Running time approximately 2.5 hours including an interval. Currently booking until 20 October 2018. Production images by Johan Persson. For more information and tickets please visit the website.