Adapted from Baz Luhrmann’s hugely popular film set in the cutthroat world of Australian amateur ballroom dancing, Strictly Ballroom: the Musical premiered in Sydney in 2014.
It’s gone through a couple of incarnations since then – most recently a revised version which opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016, directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. Now his production arrives in the West End, following further rejigging.
The story follows the trials and tribulations of Scott Hastings (Jonny Labey) whose refusal to stick to regulation “federation steps” in competition sees him clash with contest organisers and his fanatically ambitious mother (Anna Francolini), and split from his partner. It looks like he’s ruined his chances of winning the prestigious Pan-Pacific Championships.
Step in frumpy and flat-footed Fran (Zizi Strallen), who shares Scott’s taste for trying something different and sees this as an opportunity to get up close and personal with her dance studio crush.
It’s a delicious and affectionate satire on the glitz, glamour and fake tan, but even in a world where larger-than-life is par for the course, it’s painted in very broad strokes and gets off to a frantic and frenzied start, with the cod Australian accents delivered at such a shrill level that diction takes a back seat. The actors settle down a bit as the show progresses and become more believable — in particular Gerard Horan as the tyrannical contest organiser Barry Fife.
The cast of Strictly Ballroom: the Musical (photos: Johan Persson)
Will Young has been introduced as Wally Strand — a cross between a one-man Greek chorus and narrator — who guides us through the scene changes and mostly handles singing duties on the show’s score of pop classics with aplomb. But even he lacks charisma as the show ebbs between peaks and troughs, and can’t seem to find a balance between high camp and the more tender moments.
It benefits from two terrific and wholly believable leads who can both dance up a storm. Jonny Labey is broody and petulant one minute, then reveals a nice feel for comedy when given a lesson in how to dance a pasa doble by Fran’s Spanish father Rico (Fernando Mira) in one of the shows’s standout scenes. And in Zizi Strallen as Fran, the production is blessed with an actor and dancer of outstanding talent.
Drew McOnie choreographs a fine ensemble through some great routines for an audience who — thanks to a certain Saturday night TV show whose name was inspired by the film — would know a sloppy top line when they saw one. But I felt that the size of the stage restricted them at times. McOnie’s direction owed a lot to the National Theatre’s recent production of Follies, with ensemble members standing around watching the action unfold.
Strictly Ballroom is a lot of fun with some superb performances, but the uneven tone means that by the time you get to the second act — when secrets are revealed and recriminations aired — you haven’t wholly invested in these characters.
Strictly Ballroom: the Musical is at London’s Piccadilly Theatre until 20 October