Baz Luhrmann’s warm and silly 1992 debut Strictly Ballroom, the first of his ‘Red Curtain’ Trilogy – followed by Romeo + Juliet and then Moulin Rouge! – succeeds for two reasons.
Firstly, it’s very funny. The cast keep perfectly straight faces as they overact their way through the ridiculousness of competitive ballroom dancing. Paul Mercurio, who plays protagonist Scott Hastings, seems genuinely not to know he’s in a comedy, and that makes it all the more entertaining.
Secondly, Luhrmann’s film captures a world where the rhetoric is incredibly high and the stakes incredibly low. Ballroom dancing provides one of those environments where people can take themselves very seriously, and not realise how funny they’re being by doing so. It’s provincialism elevating itself to grandiose levels by sheer self-importance.
This new West End version, however, is slack where it should be tight – crucially in its comedy – and slick where it should be loose. It does a disservice to both of the film’s great strengths. The characters know that they and their world are grotesque, they play lines for laughs, and so suck the humour out of them. In trying so hard to be funny, the show comes across as cold and calculating instead.
Strictly Ballroom tells the story of dancer Scott Hastings (Jonny Labey) as he tries to impose his unorthodox dance moves on the strict world of ballroom dancing and falls in love with ugly duckling Fran (Zizi Strallen) along the way.
It began life as a short play back in 1984, written by Luhrmann and his classmates when he was studying at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts. Already a successful theatre director, the film version kick-started Luhrmann’s screen career. In 2014 it returned to the stage. A musical version was produced in Australia to mixed reviews. A heavily reworked version premiered in the UK at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016, directed by Drew McOnie. Now McOnie’s version has been reworked again. One of the major changes is the introduction of a new character, band leader Wally Strand played here by Will Young.
He’s a character straight out of panto. Young talks to the audience and announces the location at the top of each scene. More importantly, he sings. But his presence is not really necessary. It would take a really slow audience not to know where each scene was taking place given that neon lights helpfully flash, for example, the words ‘Kendall’s Dance Studio’. The singing is infrequent too.
The thing is, it’s not strictly a musical. Yes, there are a few songs, almost all pre-existing, from Sting to David Bowie. The rest of the time the band plays orchestral pieces. But given that the orchestrations are by Simon Hale, who was responsible for the stunning versions of Bob Dylan’s music in Girl From the North Country, and arrangements by Marius de Vries, who scored Romeo + Juliet and was the musical director on Moulin Rouge!, this is one of the best sounding bands in the West End. There’s a version of I Wanna Dance with Somebody set to mariachi brass and Spanish guitar, and It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) arranged as a military march. The music is glorious.
The show looks great too. Howard Hudson’s lighting shifts from the clean whiteness of stage spotlights to the warm sunset glows of Fran’s backyard, strung up with coloured bulbs and providing a glimmer of heart and soul. Catherine Martin’s blindingly spangly, lurid costumes from the 1992 film are retained here. Every colour is turned up to maximum saturation levels, pools of shocking pink and neon green swirling around under Soutra Gilmour’s crumbling black set. The contrast of the rundown dance studio and the picture perfect facade the dance world is trying to create works really well.
It’s a world of appearance, rather than feeling. There lies the crux of the story, and the problem with this adaptation. It’s so keen to be a glossy West End show that it loses its heart. McOnie’s choreography is dazzling, especially during the rousing paso doble scene which brings Act I to a climax. But his direction is less convincing, especially in broadening the comedy of the show. There’s no sense of comic timing, and the cast members over-egg jokes way beyond the point of being funny.
There are also a couple of directorial choices that feel underdeveloped. In his newly created role, Young generally hangs around on stage looking bored – McOnie doesn’t really know what to do with him.
Dancers in full finery occupy corners of the stage. For a long while it’s unclear why. Then comes a beautiful arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, accompanying Fran and Scott’s first proper dance. The dancers unfurl, Will Young sings Lauper’s words with his buzzing, humming voice and McOnie creates a glorious moving picture in which everything – including the furniture – sways and dances while Labey and Strallen move like they’re one entity. It takes a full 45 minutes for the show to deliver something this spectacular, and it never hits that same height again.
To begin with Strallen overdoes it as Fran, acne-pocked and wearing oversized glasses. When she is in loser mode, before her transformation into the sort of non-glasses-wearing heroine we can all really root for, Strallen doesn’t quite find the character’s humanity. But she settles into it, and becomes a warm focal point for the show. Labey’s Scott, however, is a bit smug, and so a bit unendearing – though he is a fabulous dancer.
The trouble is the show doesn’t heed its own message: that ballroom dancing is about more than just slickness and flash. And we’ve seen this kind of story so many times before – from Billy Elliot to Footloose and Kinky Boots, even Cinderella – we need something more.
At the end Young urges the audience up on its feet to dance and clap along to the bows. An enforced standing ovation is never a great way to end a show – especially when it’s unlikely to have been forthcoming in the first place.