As Strictly Ballroom the Musical quicksteps into The Lowry on its first ever UK tour, it begs the question: what took it so long?
It’s more than 30 years since Baz Luhrmann’s film version dazzled critics and audiences alike. And the ongoing TV success of BBC’s Strictly almost guarantees that a stage show about the competitive world of ballroom dancing would be a hit.
This musical version with a book by Luhrmann and the film’s original scriptwriter, Craig Pearce, premiered at the Sydney Lyric Theatre in 2014. But it opened to a lukewarm reception in London four years later. If you’re thinking of booking, don’t be put off by that. This touring version is a new production. And under the guiding hand of Craig Revel Horwood as director and co-choreographer it has had an injection of fab-u-lous.
If you are familiar with the film, the story is, more or less, the same. Young ballroom rebel, Scott Hastings (Kevin Clifton) has been wowing on the dance floor since the age of six. Now could be his big chance to shine and win the coveted Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship, but his insistence on dancing his own steps in competition routines is causing chaos.
Hasting’s creativity is dismissed as rebelliousness and costs him competition wins, his dance partner, and his mother’s sanity. Former dancer, Shirley Hastings (Nikki Belsher) wears her ‘happy face’ like a mask, while making every move to push her boy into the champion spotlight. As Horwood would say, life for Hastings is ‘a disaster darling’.
Just when his mother thinks life can’t get any worse for her first born, in walks his prospective new dance partner, Fran – a clumsy, spectacled beginner.
Faye Brookes brings comedy and charm to underdog, Fran, lifting the energy with a kookiness reminiscent of a young Sandra Bullock. Strictly champion, Kevin Clifton, is well-known for his fast footwork and boyish smile, and here gives fans what they expect as well as surprises with his singing.
Alongside an original score by Elliot Wheeler are a handful of instantly recognisable tracks, including Cyndi Lauper’s 80s hit, Time after Time and John Paul Young’s feelgood, Love is in the Air. Mark Walter’s dancehall set makes use of projections and minimal integrated movement of scenery to allow for swift scene changes. The focus here is, quite rightly, the dancing which fills the stage – Jose Agudo’s dramatic paso doble, as Fran’s fiery, Spanish father, is a real highlight.
The show lifts the curtain to reveal behind the scenes corruption and squabbling, as well as long-hidden family secrets. But as you’d expect, the happy face wins out in this sparkling, sequin-packed, fast-footed comedy.