When Baz Luhrmann turned his play about Australian ballroom dancers into a multi-award-winning movie, an idea that started out small became huge.
However, this stage version of the film seems to make the opposite journey. The show originated in Australia and, via the West Yorkshire Playhouse, arrives in the West End with some significant cast changes, including Will Young as the show’s compère.
He’s the knowing, storytelling soul of the show who narrates and sings a medley of ’80s chart hits as he moves unseen among the protagonists.
The Romeo and Juliet-like leads are championship ballroom dancer Scott, and his local dancing club’s gofer Fran, a wallflower who blossoms when she forcefully persuades Scott to let her audition as his dance partner. They are played by former EastEnder Jonny Labey, and Zizi Strallen and the couple are very likeable, immensely watchable, and central to a story that is utterly predictable.
Despite the starry cast additions, director and choreographer Drew McOnie’s production feels provincial on a major West End stage. The show’s producers may have calculated that the appetite for this adaptation is almost infinite given the popularity of Strictly Come Dancing, a title which alludes to Luhrmann’s original. And they are probably right.
But while the story of Scott’s attempt to break free of the conventions of ballroom dancing has heart, only once does the hoofing catch fire here in the way that a dance show should. The moment comes when Fran’s authoritarian, shop-owner dad Rico (Fernando Mira) turns out to be a hot-blooded Spanish proponent of the Paso Doble. With stamps of his block heel boots and syncopated claps of his hands, he injects the kind of rhythm and sexual energy that we had long assumed would be beyond the reach of this show. And in so doing he exposes a truth about ballroom dancing that somewhat undermines the premise of the whole evening — that, for all the passion of its followers, it is an inferior form of dance.
That’s not to say that the show will not in all likelihood do very well at the box office. But it is to say that for most, it is strictly for fans of Strictly.