Sunday 29 April 2018

Strictly Ballroom: The Musical

Piccadilly Theatre
28th April, 2018 – matinee           

‘A life lived in fear is to half-live’

Baz Luhrmann’s first of his ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy has not had a smooth transition to the stage. Australia, Yorkshire, Toronto, and now London’s West End have been the backdrops for numerous versions, try-outs and rewrites. So, for a film so saturated in theatricality, why is Strictly Ballroom a bit of a damp-squib in musical theatre land?
Director/Choreographer Drew McOnie does his best to inject a bit of pizzazz into proceedings, and the dance routines are very entertaining and skilfully performed. Where this production stumbles is in the mish-mash of a book and its weird refusal to be a ‘musical’.

Chief in the show’s mis-steps is the inexplicable decision to create a narrator/balladeer role in the guise of Wally Strand (a sequined and moustachioed Will Young). Rather than guide us through the outlandish world of Australian amateur ballroom competitions with wry humour, I found the character’s constant interjections an irksome distraction – just as I was getting invested in Scott and Fran’s relationship up pops Wally to offer some inane comment.

 If the role was tailor made for Young, then I assume it was an attempt to add a bit of a Cabaret, Emcee type frisson, but the character is neither edgy enough (the closest we got to near-the-knuckle humour was Young flipping the ‘V’ to an audience member trying to film the show), nor integrated into the story enough to be necessary.

The rest of the book is pretty much taken verbatim from the film. Such was the case that I was anticipating each line before it came with around a 98% success rate. Now, this may say more about me than it does the production. As a self-confessed mega fan of the film I had high hopes, and part of me did fangirl when much-loved quotes and moments were realised on stage. Yet this line-for-line recreation has the surreal quality of being akin to a cosplay convention or re-enactment event. I was reminded of the popularity of Rocky Horror screenings where fans act out the action in complete synchronicity with the film.

Musically, the production certainly has its highs. Namely those lifted from the film’s soundtrack. Young’s rendition of ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ are lush highlights in a score that otherwise doesn’t quite know where it stands. Music consultant, Anton Monsted (I assume it is he that is responsible), has raided the dukebox for every 80’s and 90’s song with the word ‘dance’ in the title. ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Dancing With Myself’, ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’… you get the gist. Yet, bizarrely, these numbers get only the briefest of outings. A line or two of one song then we’re harshly cut off and the next begins. Too brief to be medleys, and altogether jarring, the music smacks of a sort of shame, a refusal to be an out-and-out musical.

This is exacerbated by the fact that Young sings everything. I was craving big choruses, ‘I Want’ songs and an all-important ‘Eleven O’Clock’ number. By having Wally sing alone we are robbed of insight and a connection with the characters that solo numbers, duets and ensembles can provide. Furthermore, for what is one of the all-time great film finales, having Scott and Fran’s dramatic and triumphant solo Paso Doble (in the film danced to the ‘rhythm’ of audience applause) danced to unwelcome musical interjections of ‘Freedom’ robs the moment of its intensity. 

So, again, the music removes us from the action. My initial reaction to the show was that it was like watching the film while having a Will Young album playing in the background – both lovely things in their own right (Young’s voice is truly spectacular), but they fail to blend together in theatrical harmony.

Soutra Gilmore’s scaffold-dominant set is incongruously dystopian. This only furthers the impression that McOnie, Monsted and Co. are intent on creating a postmodernist take on what is essentially a piece of highly entertaining fluff. Not all theatre has to be deep and meaningful, but knowing what you are and embracing it should be the first step to success…

I feel I’ve been overly harsh up to now. There are moments of elation in McOnie’s production. The flamenco sections are marvellous and the use of Bizet’s ‘Habanera’ is a great example of musical DJ-ing. As Rico, Fernando Mira makes a big impression with his limited stage-time when he shows Scott how to Paso Doble. Gerard Horan is suitably loathsome as the Trump-esque Barry Fife. And Zizi Strallen and Jonny Labey play it just right as the central duo. Their performances are honest, unjaded and heartfelt, with a believable chemistry that had me rooting for them. McOnie’s choreography for ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ highlights the couple’s spark as they dance an electrifying rumba without ever touching. Moving together instinctively and with tender abandon, this moment demonstrates how elements of the film can be enhanced and improved on stage.

In summary, stage adaptations of films should be justified by bringing something new to a well-known story, and Strictly Ballroom misses the mark on this point. Fans of the film will enjoy seeing their favourite characters brought to life, and McOnie showcases his talents as the leading choreographer of his generation, but the main effect this production has had for me is to remind me just how much I love the film, and how difficult it is to recreate the nostalgia of childhood favourites in a more cynical and fast-paced age.

Strictly Ballroom is currently booking until 20th October.

Cast of Strictly Ballroom.
Credit: Johan Persson.

Thursday 19 April 2018

An Officer and a Gentleman

Curve, Leicester
19th April, 2018

An original review of Taylor Hackford’s 1982 movie said that An Officer and a Gentleman ‘relies on the strength of [its] stereotypes to build a conventional but hugely compelling drama’. This new musical adaptation, receiving its world premiere at Curve, makes no apologies for embracing the melodrama of the movie. In doing so, it delivers a polished, unabashed production which confirms Curve and director Nikolai Foster as exceptional producers of commercial new musicals.

For all of its air-punching, feel-good moments (and there are plenty of those!), this is no ordinary jukebox musical. On entering the auditorium, a montage depicts 1980s culture: MTV, adverts for Tab soda and KFC, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Michael Jackson. However, clips of Reagan schmoozing with his old school Hollywood varnish acts as a reminder that it was also a decade of the AIDS crisis, Reaganomics, and a decline in social mobility. This creates a political backdrop for the caravan parks, cheap motels, sleazy bars and paper mills of Pensacola, Florida. It is here where the US naval aviation training facility offers a last chance saloon to its cadets and for the female workers of a nearby factory who see the pilots as their ticket out of a dead end life. Douglas Day Stewart’s (original screenplay) and Sharleen Coper Cohen’s book is sometimes too expositional and draws the characters too boldly but this perhaps only enhances the cult classic melodrama status of it.

Jonny Fines as Zack Mayo, four-time Olivier nominee Emma Williams as Paula, and Jessica Daley as Lynette have a dangerously electrifying presence as the leading trio. We see Fines soften from a James Dean-type rebel to the more emotionally attached figure he is at the end - this is especially conveyed in a reprise of ‘Family Man’. Williams is his perfect match. I got chills when hearing her sing in a similar reaction to when seeing Bernadette Peters last month in Hello, Dolly! in New York. You're left with no doubt that Paula and Lynette would easily get their jets if they applied. Ray Shell also provides good support as Foley, the stiff-backed sergeant-cum-father figure that won Louis Gossett Jr. the Oscar. It’s interesting (and apt for the stage) that his ‘Jody Call’ number is essentially a mini version of A Chorus Line but with naval students.

The score is mostly made up of 1980s hits, from ‘Material Girl’ to ‘The Final Countdown’, all of them gamely performed by the cast and superbly choreographed by Kate Prince. Occasionally, characters’ difficulties feel crow-barred in around lines from songs. Paula and Zack singing ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, for instance, is very affecting until Zack’s small town friend Sid (Ian McIntosh, the perfect antithesis to Daley’s Lynette) sings the next verse possibly referring to his sexual incompetence. Quibbles aside, Foster gives the audience what they want with the songs, resulting in several of moments of musical ecstasy. One of these comes in the form of the act two karaoke opener ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’, where Ben Cracknell’s bar lighting surges as if they’re going to blow from the amount of energy on stage. Sarah Travis and George Dyer beautifully orchestrate Will Jennings’ ‘Up Where We Belong’, concentrating its melody to leitmotifs that punctuate and underscore the show, leading to the triumphantly uplifting final scene.

An Officer and a Gentleman plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st April and then tours the UK.

Jonny Fines as Zack Mayo and Emma Williams as Paula Pokrifki. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Sunday 1 April 2018

The York Realist

Crucible, Sheffield
29th March, 2018, matinee

This is where I live. Here.

Robert Hastie once said (in an interview with Matt Trueman) that the director’s role is ‘to provide the clearest conduit between a writer and an actor’. Such an approach, effectively of getting in the way as little as possible, perfectly suits the prosaic dialogue of Peter Gill’s 2001 play The York Realist. Set in 1960s Yorkshire, the play is interested in the developing relationship of farmhand George (Ben Batt) and assistant director from London John (Jonathan Bailey). What gives the play its maturity is its focus on the tangible aspects of character and setting, and its refusal of the facile or formulaic. Hastie matches the play’s gravity with a production that embraces silence and precision without overplaying them. The result is a production where the simplest tucking in of chairs around a table or the silhouette from a landing light can evoke beautiful theatre.

The play is set in George and his mum’s farmhouse, a place of work, home and gathering for George’s sister and her family, as well as family friend Doreen. It mostly occurs in linear time (although this is occasionally disrupted by moments of temporal overlapping so we are teased by the play beginning with a moment from a later scene) which is stretched out in the limited space of Peter McKintosh’s meticulously wrought design. We hear that it changes offstage overtime but otherwise it remains a traditional, rough-around-the-edges, rural farmhouse, complete with a range, wooden beams and stone bricks. Place is important in Gill’s play in an intangible way. John is fascinated so much by the earth, stone and wood of George’s home, which is inseparable from who George is and what he values most, that I at first wondered if it was the novelty of ‘being up north’ with which John had fallen in love. But Gill, Hastie, Batt and Bailey afford the characters much more depth. Bailey’s John (who visits George to persuade him to return to rehearsals for The York Mystery Plays) is polite and often tries to impress. I got the feeling that his breathlessness was as much from the nerves of attraction as it was from the walk up to the house. Batt fully invests in George: he’s the strong farmhand with a matter-of-fact turn of phrase, as well as surprisingly open about his sexuality, saying that ‘it’s never really been a problem for me’. But he’s also bashful and sensitive as well as occasionally reticent when talking about leaving home, even after his mother’s death when there are no responsibilities keeping him there.

The rest of the characters are by no means collateral. Lesley Nicol has great comic timing as George’s mother as well as finding the right balance between showing her love and pragmatism. ‘Didn’t God have a good voice’ she exclaims, filling the silence with her appraisal of the performance of The York Mystery Plays. Katie West is also very good as Doreen, slowly realising that George will never propose to her. There is a complex web of emotions in Gill’s play, such as unrequited love and the rejection of one’s feelings. But, most of all, it’s interested in George’s feelings, especially when he realises that there still lies uncertainties about who he is and where he belongs. In this great play, Gill evokes a very concrete world in which characters wrestle with more elusive questions. Foxes, indeed, may have their dens and birds have their nests, ‘but the son of man/ Has not where his head may rest’.

The York Realist plays at the Sheffield Crucible until 7th April, 2018.

The company of The York Realist. Photo: Johan Persson