Strewth! Strictly Ballroom The Musical is a flashy and frenetic fairy tale with a fab-u-lous message to live unapologetically as yourself.
Based on Baz Luhrmann’s award-winning romantic-comedy film, this feel-good musical tells the story of rebellious Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings. Dancing is the be-all and end-all of life itself for Scott’s family, who are all rule-abiding, championship-winning ballroom professionals. Scott has followed in their perfectly placed footsteps and is a rising star on the local circuit, but he is bored stiff. He has mastered all the conventional dances and wants to thrill audiences with his own way of moving.
When Scott’s radical new steps see him fall out of favour with the dance federation, he loses his long-time partner. The Pan Pacific Grand Prix Finals are looming, so he teams up with Fran, the daughter of spirited, flamenco-dancing Spanish migrants and the studio’s quintessential ugly duckling. Together, they find the courage to rise above expectations, defy tradition and dance from their hearts.
Strictly Ballroom The Musical is currently waltzing (and foxtrotting, tangoing, sambaing…) to venues nationwide on its first ever UK and Ireland tour. This new adaptation is directed by Craig Revel Horwood, the notoriously hard-to-please Strictly Come Dancing judge. He has co-choreographed the routines with Jason Gilkison, another name fans of the BBC’s Saturday night dance show will recognise. It’s a flamboyant and fun theatrical extravaganza, with dazzling sets and costumes, delivered by a cast of performers who gutsily give their all. Their joyous intention is to make your heart soar and your feet want to dance.
As a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the cutthroat world of ballroom dancing and a rendering of the cult classic film, it is packed full of all the melodrama and crude Aussie charm you might expect. Unfortunately, as a stage show, so much of the content is delivered full on and at full volume that spectacle and shouting detracts from the storytelling. The over-the-top characters are all trying to work out where and how they fit. Their desire to choreograph a sense of belonging for themselves is something that we can all relate to. They just go about it too forcefully – and loudly – for us to truly connect and care.
Former Strictly Come Dancing professional Kevin Clifton is contracted as Scott Hastings and his inclusion in the cast must be putting bums on seats. The press night performance did not feature Clifton, which happens and is just one of those things. However, although the appearance of any artist is never guaranteed, the production’s website does not look as if it advises when his holiday dates or regular rest days are scheduled for. This seems slightly mean-spirited towards theatregoers who might be keen to see him live.
Potential Clifton-related disappointment aside, rest assured that understudy Edwin Ray wins an audience over in crowd-pleasing Scott Hastings style. And former Coronation Street actress Faye Brookes is a beautiful surprise as Fran. Away from the cobbles, Brookes has toured as Roxie Hart in Chicago, Princess Fiona in Shrek and Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Those leading-lady vocals are present and correct here, along with an antipodean accent, physical comedy skills and character-driven dance quality.
The dance mannerisms required for Strictly Ballroom must be difficult to achieve and sustain. The characters who exist in a bizarre ballroom bubble bop with enthusiasm, but they are not top-tier professionals. Rather than being technically perfect, they need to be compulsively watchable as agitated individuals who take their need to win a dancing competition, or prove a point, far too seriously. Meanwhile, the Spanish characters, who rely on the rhythm of their hearts to guide their expressive movements and their life decisions, need to be dynamic but believable.
The choreography effectively embodies both worlds. The ballroom dancers sweep around the floor with pretentious urgency, collective hands of time counting down to the all-important finals. Meanwhile, the passion that Fran’s family members feel burns with scintillating intensity.
Jose Agudo gives the most riveting display as Fran’s father, Rico. It is impossible to tear your eyes away from his commanding performance of percussive footwork, crisp hand clapping and strong arm shaping. Karen Mann is an understated delight as Fran’s grandmother, Abuela. She clearly communicates the message of authenticity and bravery. Don’t be scared. Be yourself. A life lived in fear is a life half lived.
Songs from the 1992 film, including ‘Love Is In The Air’, ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ and ‘Time After Time’, feature as break-into-song numbers. There are also new songs by internationally acclaimed artists Sia, David Foster and Eddie Perfect. It is heartening to see that the music is played live by an excellent band.
Some of the dance routines and songs seem to be cut too short and some feel unnecessarily drawn-out. The first act is long, at 75 minutes, and the second act, although much shorter (45 minutes), is hindered by an air of hesitation. This is possibly not helped by the startling use of lighting, which sometimes means that the house lights suddenly come up. Stylistically, this is a clever way to bring us, as the real audience, into the insular ballroom world, as the audience at the competitions. After all, this is the rebellious crusade that Scott goes on when he decides to pay attention to the way that dancing makes him – and an audience – feel. Holistically, such striking illumination might be disruptive from a storytelling perspective.
Strictly speaking, Strictly Ballroom The Musical is a dance-centric diversion that is always dazzling, frequently deafening and occasionally moving. The key takeaway? Everyone is making up their own steps as they go along so aspects of a dance, show or experience may not work out. That’s fine. Just don’t be a “gutless wonder”. Feel the fear and do whatever you want to do anyway.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes, including one interval.
Age guidance: 12+
*Production photography by Ellie Kurttz.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.