Milton Keynes Theatre
3rd April 2023
‘Strictly Ballroom – The Musical’ shouldn’t be confused with ‘Strictly Come Dancing – the TV show’. Based on the 1992 film of the same name by Baz Luhrmann, ‘Strictly Ballroom’ is an original story that digs behind the sequins and fake tan to explore the cut-throat ambition and rivalry within championship ballroom dancing. It does have a lot of strong links to the similarly-named TV show (fan favourite Kevin Clifton leads the show, with judge Craig Revel Horwood directing and Jason Gilkison choreographing), but those expecting a night of sambas and salsas may be surprised to be presented with a character-driven love story set in Australia instead, set amongst the on-stage rules and off-stage dramas of the Pan Pacific Grand Prix competition.
Scott Hastings (played on Press Night by Edwin Ray, covering for Clifton) has grown up in a family of dancers, craving the freedom to dance his own steps and frustrated in being confined by competition rules. His unconventional moves make him a target for federation head Barry Fife (Gary Davis), and cause Scott to lose a championship along with his partner. As the next competition looms, Scott’s mum Shirley (Nikki Belsher) and coach Les (Quinn Patrick) frantically try to find a replacement for Scott to dance with, while at the same time a chance encounter brings the beginner Fran (Faye Brooks) into Scott’s life. Her awkward enthusiasm for wanting to dance Scott’s way creates a connection that they can’t deny, but when Fife arranges for Scott to dance with established champion Tina Sparkle (Danielle Cato) instead, Scott and Fran’s dance may be over before it’s begun.
‘Strictly Ballroom’ has been reworked a couple of times, and although this latest iteration is an improvement on the ill-conceived Will Young vehicle seen in London in 2018, it still feels there’s work to be done. On the positive side, its characters at least sing their own songs now, rather than having Young walk among them singing for them, which feels far more organic and authentic, and Mark Walters’ costumes certainly look the part. Gilkison’s choreography is also fantastic and delivered with great energy by the cast.
Where the show struggles is in its lacklustre pacing, an insecure grip on the comedy within the material, and being musically uneven. Horwood’s production looks fantastic, but splutters along too slowly, rarely leaving second gear with few standout highlights. Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s original film script forms the basis of the book, and the dry humour is played too broadly for laughs that don’t land as well as they should, and the simplistic story only has so many miles in it before it runs out of steam in the second half. The show is also somewhat dissatisfying as a musical, with a bland mix of original songs (written and arranged by Elliot Wheeler) padded out with the inclusion of a handful of songs taken from the film’s memorable soundtrack. “Shooting Star” (a solo for Scott) and “Beautiful Surprise” (a duet with Fran) are nice enough, but still make little impact. The established songs fare better, with “Time After Time” and the Spanish translation of “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps” both creating beautiful moments within the show, and “Love Is In the Air” ending everything with a fun energy.
Taking to the stage in front of an audience expecting “the name” is never easy, and Edwin Ray did a commendable job on Press Night with a really likeable performance. However, Clifton’s absence highlighted how heavily the show rests on his shoulders, and his unique “spark” is vital to the show. Also new to her role, Faye Brookes only joined the tour last week, taking over from Maisie Smith. Brookes does really well, sounding great and giving a different spin to Fran but equally entertaining, and she’ll only improve further as she settles in. However the stars of this show are Jose Agudo and Karen Mann as Fran’s parents, who bring such fire and authenticity to their roles. They really are the true “corazon” (Spanish for “heart”) of this show and all of their Latin scenes are a triumph, particularly Agudo’s paso doble masterclass which is absolutely mesmerising.
To quote Horwood’s regular Saturday night catchphrases, ‘Strictly Ballroom’ isn’t “fab-u-lous” but it isn’t a “dance disaaaaahhhster” either. The delivery of the material and pacing need tweaking, and some better songs wouldn’t hurt, but there’s just enough magic on this dancefloor to make it worth your time.
‘Strictly Ballroom’ runs at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 8th April 2023, before continuing its UK tour until Summer 2023.
Performance runtime 2 hours 25 minutes including interval