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Stage Review: Strictly Ballroom: The Musical

Zizi Strallen and Jonny Labey trip the light fantastic. Picture: Johna Persson - Credit: Archant

A show to give London a happy Face

When I was starting out on local newspapers, I remember heading off with a sense of morbid fascination to cover the re-enactment of the Battle of Britain by a small Townswomen’s Guild in a village hall. The question that occurred to me as I sat watching this inevitably embarrassing spectacle was: why?

I had the same thought as I took my seat for Strictly Ballroom: The Musical. Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film about two spirited young hoofers taking on the might of the Australian ballroom dancing establishment was, in its own uproariously camp way, perfect. What was it that made the director and choreographer Drew McOnie think he could in any way improve upon it?

Sadly, when a really great film is made, theatre people almost always seem to think there’s money to be made in turning it into a show, but they necessarily set themselves a near impossible challenge. It can only be a matter of time, of course, before we have Citizen Kane: The Musical.

For all that, in its own weird and wonderful way, this production does achieve a measure of success. If you’re into shows that feature big hair, sequins and gallons of mascara – and that’s just what the men are sporting – then this could well be for you. It would certainly help if you didn’t see it entirely sober.

Its saving grace is that it is very much a homage to the film, rather than a serious attempt to emulate it. Indeed, it keeps faithfully – almost reverentially – to the original screenplay, with more or less the same soundtrack, wigs, comb-overs and wardrobe. McOnie’s two attempts at breaking the mould come in casting a strikingly attractive young actress in Zizi Strallen as Fran – which obviously detracts from the idea of her as a homely wallflower that was so pivotal to the original story – and adding to the cast a singing narrator in the form of Will Young’s Wally Strand.

The fun, if you’ve seen the film, is thinking about all the memorable big scenes and wondering how they will pull them off, and, generally speaking, they just about manage it every time. The whole show is an almighty balancing act, where they very nearly but never quite fall off the wire. The exuberance of the cast – in particular the principals Strallen and Jonny Labey as Scott Hastings – make it hard not to come out of it all with a face that’s as resolutely happy as Scott’s mum Shirley (Anna Francolini, on good form).

The dance routines are impressive and there are some great comedy turns from, for instance, Richard Grieve, who invests Les Kendall – the owner of the local dance studio – with more than a touch of John Inman.

With his ginger pompadour and bombastic manner, Gerard Horan, as the wicked dance federation president Barry Fife, painfully evokes Donald Trump. I enjoyed it, despite myself, and predict it may well be the surprise hit of the summer.