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Drew McOnie’s Strictly Ballroom review at West Yorkshire Playhouse – ‘thrilling choreography’

Sam Lips and Gemma Sutton in Strictly Ballroom at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Photo: Alastair Muir.

In A Chorus Line, arguably the greatest of all musicals about the business of being a professional stage dancer, one of those auditioning receives a dance card which reads ‘Dance Ten, Looks Three.’ I’m afraid I am tempted to apply the same ratings to this energetic but clunky-looking stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 hit film, based on his earlier short play, Strictly Ballroom.

On one hand, it soars, simmers and shimmers in a series of explosive, confident dance routines that are either being rehearsed or performed in competition. They comprise the spine of what is a fairly simplistic story of competitive ballroom dancing in mid-1980s Australia. But Luhrmann’s story, for which he provided the original book with Craig Pearce, newly adapted here by Terry Johnson, is a bit of a leaden weight, in its exploration of individuality versus discipline as a young dancer tries to follow his father by performing his own dance steps rather than follow the established competition ones.

Another outsider Fran is drawn into his orbit, and he falls in love with her, facing an internal struggle (as well as one with his domineering mother, determined to see him win the competition) of whether to partner with her or a more technically accomplished dancer called Tina Sparkle.

There’s quite a lot of caricature in some of these underdeveloped characters, though it is no fault of the cast who do their best to animate what they’re given, and sometimes what they’re not given, as in Stephen Matthews’ beautifully stoical performance as Sam’s dad Doug, and Fernando Mira and Eve Polycarpou as Fran’s characterful grandparents.

The story is a bit of a grind, though, and the threadbare sets by Soutra Gilmour are uncharacteristically underwhelming, made up of scaffolding poles and meagre flats. Instead it is left entirely to the disciplined cast to tear up the stage in Drew McOnie’s intoxicating choreography. Set to a score that is part jukebox – notably with Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time and Vanda and Young’s Love is in the Air – and part original, with six numbers from Australian writer Eddie Perfect, there’s a sense the show is not quite sure whether it is doing something new or revisiting old favourites.

Yet American newcomer Sam Lips as Scott, and the delightful British singer/dancer Gemma Sutton as Fran, lend it sincerity and sizzle. It’s both warmer and less cliched than that other dance-based show, Dirty Dancing, but it still needs more work to resonate dramatically and scenically.

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Verdict
Thrilling choreography unfortunately unmatched by the story or the design
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