REVIEW: STRICTLY BALLROOM (Piccadilly Theatre) ★★★

In an ideal world, Baz Luhrmann’s filmography should naturally fit into theatre. His spectacular settings, dynamic colours and imaginative landscapes are the stuff that producers and directors dream to bring to life on stage. Alas, Strictly Ballroom might not be the most suitable choice.

Based on Luhrmann’s breakthrough debut 1992 film, Strictly Ballroom is a Cinderella-esque story of rising ballroom star Scott Hastings (Eastenders’ Jonny Labey) out to compete for the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship, with nerdy Fran (Zizi Strallen) striving to dance alongside Scott and get his attention.

The story is narrated by MC Wally Strand (Will Young) who’s characterisation seems to become lost after a number of songs and simply just becomes the singing narrator of the show. For you see, the production itself is half a story and half a Will Young concert as he is practically the only person that sings throughout. Bold decision, considering the variety of songs and genres Will is faced with from Motown, Grace Jones and a legitimate cover of It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.

Despite his shimmery catsuit and occasionally rollerskating and pirouetting, you can’t help but wonder how ironic it is casting Will Young for Strictly Ballroom considering he dropped out of a certain TV show of a similar name…

The production has all the elements you could want from a Luhrmann film – an eccentric ensemble, dazzling lighting, versatile and slick choreography from Drew McOnie, particularly of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, and a joyous musical soundtrack. There is a multitude of arrangements and genres throughout, no matter how many decades the soundtrack actually spans, from Strauss to Mambo No. 5!

Technically, it is spot on. Naturally, the visuals overshadow the plot itself and most of the characterisation becomes forgettable. The majority of roles, especially the villains, are caricatures and lack in memorable dialogue or nuisances. Thankfully, some realism is bestowed in Jonny Labey’s performance. His straight-up and untypical heroic manner provides some relief to the visual craziness of what surrounds him. Zizi Strallen makes for a suited pair alongside Jonny as she shines in her geekiness in Act One and showcases a huge contrast to some of her more well-known roles such as Mary Poppins or Follies’ Young Phyllis.

Fun this may be throughout, with scattered moments of musical and well-choreographed ecstasy. However, Strictly Ballroom requires more intrigue and imagination in its humour and plot in order for audiences to truly be transported to the beguiling world of Baz Luhrmann. Whilst some may consider this just another addition to the jukebox musical collection currently growing in the West End, Strictly Ballroom’s musical and choreographic variation can hopefully shine through and give this production its own unique niche that it needs to stand up against its competitors.

Reviewed by Barry O’Reilly
Photo: Johan Persson

Buy tickets to Strictly Ballroom

INTERVIEW: Zizi Strallen chats about starring in STRICTLY BALLROOM

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