“I don’t know if you are illusion”
Hoping for a ten from Len and to avoid the dreaded dis-sah-ter from Craig, Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom arrives for its UK premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Best known in its 1992 film version, it actually began life as a play in the mid-1980s when it became big in Czechoslovakia as well as Luhrmann’s native Australia and perhaps appropriately, it is now Drew McOnie who takes the directorial chair, the choreographer-director’s rising star an ideal fit for a musical all about dance.
And what dance it is. We’re in the world of competitive ballroom dancing and we’re treated to a wide range of routines from rehearsals to all-out performances and much inventive work in-between, especially where mirrors are involved. And in all this freedom of expression, there’s a crystal-clear distillation of the story’s message in the sheer joy of dancing for fun and the power of following an individual path. But the show isn’t just dance, it’s words and music as well and there, it is less sure-footed.
The book, originally by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce and adapted here by Terry Johnson, is lacking in the humour it needs to fly, the sharpness to make the camp work. And the emotional beats that should elevate the plotting from Hollywood schmaltz rarely land – in its quieter moments, you can’t help but notice just how dully conventional it all is. The score also misfires, mixing together 80s classics with original songs by Eddie Perfect in a manner that perplexes just as much as it pleases.
Lead performances from Gemma Sutton’s novice Fran, inducted into the seductive world of dance by Sam Lips as the cockily sure Scott are brightly appealing, and Fernando Miro and Eve Polycarpou stand out in a talented and energetic company as Fran’s paso dobling parents. As we reach the end, McOnie can’t resist the kind of crowd-pleasing finale that lets marketing departments say things like ‘the audience were on their feet every night’ but for me, I’m not sure there’s enough here to keep the show out of the dance-off