Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical

Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie
Piccadilly Theatre
From

The irrepressible Baz Luhrmann returns to the high-grossing 1992 outrageous fantasy send-up of the sexist Australian amateur ballroom scene film that put him on the map. It had already been a short student stage play in 1984. This time it’s a musical with book by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.

There's plenty of juice in it still, there's plenty of music, at least twenty-five numbers, including “Love is in the Air”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”, “Time After Time”, “Happy Feet”, “Sway”, and “I’m So Excited”. All sung by Will Young. He’s the film soundtrack, a new character called Wally Strand. But musical?

I’d call it a kitsch romantic comedy dance drama: the dancers talk (I’ll not mention the accents), they don't sing—except the two young leads for a couple of lines when touched on the shoulder by their fairy godmother, Young, the camp Cabaret-style MC, Greek chorus commentator, and warm-up guy. A lot to carry, and he does it with aplomb in a glittering black unitard, eighties moustache, floppy wrists and big grin.

The storyline follows the film exactly (apart from the phantom Wally character). Scott (Jonny Labey), son of former ballroom dancers, defies convention by trying out new moves, which are not strictly ballroom according to Australian Federation head Barry Fife, the lascivious Trump figure with his floppy toupee. Gerard Horan is a treat as the corrupt ruler of his mini-kingdom.

Another figure who wants to break convention is Fran (Zizi Strallen), the ugly duckling beginner: an unlikely pairing with Scott who’s been dancing since he was six. Wouldn't you know, love blossoms—very Hollywood—and Scott gets to be taught how to do the Paso Doble properly (to Bizet’s "Habanera") by Fran’s Spanish father (Fernando Mira) and grandmother (Eve Polycarpou), who tells him that rhythm starts in the heart.

There’s lots of rivalry and dodgy shenanigans—an excuse for some broad camp comedy—for that ultimate goal, the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship. Scott and Fran don’t have a chance against the star couple, Tina Sparkle (Charlotte Gooch) and Ken Railings of the white hair and whiter teeth going off the rails with his drinking (Gary Watson in pop-eyed overdrive).

You can work out the ending without any help from me. Everything is heavily underlined. Fran’s motto, “a life lived in fear is a life half-lived”, is the feel-good message. When all hope is gone and Scott prepares to please his mother, the moment Fran’s gran produces Fran’s frock from her basket brings the audience to a high pitch.

Strictly Ballroom, which spawned, or at least prompted, the BBC TV show, is a tonic and a lift of the spirits. In a sense the 1950s Sunday Night at London Palladium is its revue paradigm, and so is the audience.

The audience (this is not press night) is eager and ready to play along in panto (“do we have a ballroom dancer in the house?”) fashion, clapping on demand, reacting to stage slaps with an ooh, getting up and dancing straight into a standing ovation. How’s that for manipulation. Luhrmann knows exactly how to press the popular culture buttons. It’s a great night out in the West End, if that’s your cup of tea.

Choreographer and director Drew McOnie presides over a tight ship—the stage space is much too small for such ebullience, but the advantage is that one sees the terrific dancers in close-up.

Labey and Strallen give it all they’ve got. Anna Francolini goes way over the top, pulling too many faces as Scott's distraught mother Shirley, but her dancing partner and fellow teacher Richard Grieve as Les Kendall is spot on as a gay Luhrmann look-alike in shiny pale blue suit. Stephen Matthews as Shirley’s weedy husband, who undergoes a late transformation, could be out of Carry On Camping.

The hoofers, smiles firmly fixed, are amazing—musical theatre trained performers usually are—they out-Folly the National Theatre’s Follies for me on set designer Soutra Gilmour’s fire-escape scaffolding staircases. Accommodating a ten-piece band on the stage as well as a cast of thirty-one, where else can she go but up?

McOnie channels his ‘Matthew Bourne’ in the Barry bad dream sequence when dancers slither from under his bed à la Bourne’s Swan Lake. After seeing that in the vast Dominion Theatre, I remember bringing Australian guests to see it in this very theatre. Everything is possible—good productions can magically expand and shrink like Alice to little detriment. “The readiness is all” in the razzle dazzle world of performance.

Set changes are slick and choreographed into the action—not only a game Young but the whole thing bowls along on roller skates, first half about seventy-five minutes, the “welcome back” second about fifty. Cartoon colour (to match the cartoon characters), provided by Catherine Martin’s spangled riot of frothy frocks, is not the icing on the cake: it is the cake.

Vera Liber