★★★★| Hunky dance champion, Scott Hastings throws the uptight world of the Australian Ballroom Federation into disarray when he strays from tradition and introduces his own steps onto the dance floor of the competition. Horrifying his mother, his coach, his friends and, most importantly, the federation’s chairman, his new moves ignite a spark in Fran, the dance school’s ugly duckling. As Scott rejects his potential new partners and routines, he secretly practices with Fran, falling in love as they do. But as they head to the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Finals, not everything on the judging panel is ‘strictly ballroom’, and Scott is forced to choose between dancing from the approved moves and dancing from his heart.
In 1992, Baz Luhrmann opened his Red Curtain Trilogy of films with this offbeat satire on the world of ballroom dancing and the film quickly garnered critical praise and cult status. The show has come full circle, moving from stage to screen and back to stage in a production which is wildly vivacious, colourful and as camp as they come. Featuring songs from the film along with a number of new musical numbers, the camp factor is ramped up to the max, with the whole thing swishing around in a swirl of sequins, feathers, 80’s pastel shades and deliberately dodgy wigs.
Broadway veteran Sam Lips makes his UK theatre debut in the role of Scott, with his strengths primarily in his voice and his dancing; whilst Gemma Sutton relishes in a believable transformation from shy wall flower to leading lady, as Fran. Richard Grieve steals every scene he is in with his portrayal of the flamboyant Les Kendall and there are brilliantly understated performances from Tasmin Carroll and Stephen Matthews as Scott’s parents. Flesh out the cast with an ensemble of excellent dancers, including a plethora of perfect pecs and bulging biceps and you have a top notch cast who are clearly enjoying themselves as much as the audience.
The ingenious set design by Soutra Gilmour opened out into the key locations with remarkable versatility and comfortably accommodates Drew McOnie’s steady direction and thoroughly enjoyable choreography. The first act focuses primarily on the narrative, which never strays too far from the familiar film, whilst the second act opens up into a barrage of musical numbers which are unyielding from the opening number right up until the curtain falls, bringing the crown to their feet in thunderous approval.
With Strictly Come Dancing riding high in the public consciousness, the UK premiere of Strictly Ballroom is well timed, and proves just as undemanding but far more enjoyable than its nearest television counterpart. Whilst underneath the glitz, glam and gayness of it all, there is a rather corny Pygmalion-eque love story, this is one evening at the theatre that is more about the joy of the journey rather than the destination. Cheesy, tongue in cheek and with a distinct flavour of both irony and homage to the art form, it’s a smile inducing spectacle, and one can only hope that a national tour will follow.
Musicals really don’t come any gayer than this, and the show is a piece of unadulterated, joyous, feel-good theatre.
Strictly Ballroom is currently playing at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until 21st January 2017. For tickets, further information and details of their new season, visit their website at www.wyp.org.uk or call the box office on 0113 213 7700
In between visits to the theatre, watching films, photography, walking, scuba diving and singing (badly); Paul writes for TheGayUK.