Transformed from Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 romantic comedy; this musical adaptation of Strictly Ballroom brings toe-tapping jukebox classics and combines these with a talented crew of cast and creatives, that any fan of Strictly Come Dancing will truly adore. Directed by household name Craig Revel Horwood and co-choreographed with Jason Gilkison, this glitzy stage production takes all the right steps to live up to Lurhmann’s original; the first of his films to win multiple awards.
Bringing together a cast of over 20 masterfully skilled performers, this musical takes place in Australia in 1990, telling the intertwined narratives of two young dancers, Scott Hastings (Kevin Clifton) and Fran (Maisie Smith). With Scott having danced from the age of 6, he’s tired of listening to the Federation’s rules and regulations of what moves must be performed on the Ballroom floor, with his radical, maverick dance style seeing him fall out of the favour of the Australian Federation and the higher-ups within the Pan Pacific Dancing Competition, and so chose dance with beginner, Fran.
Despite being a beginner, Fran’s the only performer that can seem to match his rhythm, giving him the courage to face the Federation and defy tradition, discovering that the trick to winning isn’t always to be Strictly Ballroom! Through the use of narrative storytelling through dance, despite a simple plot; the story unfolds in a beautiful array of dance ranging from Ballroom and Latin, focusing on the show-stealing Pasodoble.
Being known in the public eye for her work on Eastenders, Maisie Smith made a beautiful Fran; and despite not having powerhouse vocals like other performers I’ve seen on stage, I was still taken away by her vocals, alongside her flawless dancing skills. When first entering the narrative; her mannerisms seem quite clumsy as she’s dreaming big, wanting to dance with the professionals–but she is forever shunned away by Mrs Shirley Hastings (Michelle Buckley), and is given janitorial duties. As she joins forces with Scott; she slowly begins to break out of her shell, proving she is more than capable to dance alongside the professionals, allowing for a cheerful performance from Smith.
Her relatability as an awkward, dorky beginner made you root for her character instantly and follows her steps to perfection when facing the tough competition and reality of the Ballroom scene.
Alongside Maisie was Strictly Come Dancing sensation, Kevin Clifton as the charismatic Scott Hastings. This isn’t the first project the duo have worked collaboratively on, with the pair being crowned winners of 2019’s Children in Need Strictly special; providing great chemistry between Scott and Fran. Kevin’s performative nature really stood out on stage, paired with his wealthy knowledge of the Ballroom scene; making Scott a character you couldn’t take your eyes off of, whether performing solo numbers or large ensemble pieces. Truly portraying theatrical frustration through phenomenal musical numbers such as “Shooting Star”, Clifton’s rebellious nature was a real accomplishment that gave me chills on several occasions.
With both Smith and Clifton being trained in dance and not being acclaimed for their vocals; neither belted out ballads, but they both achieved a spectacular job of delivering lines with constant Aussie accents, with complimentary vocals. The most impactful moment from this creative duo came through in “Time After Time”, a 1983 jukebox track; from Cyndi Lauper. Within this musical number, Scott and Fran take to the rooftop of their dance studio, where they practise after hours; allowing for a quiet, intimate musical moment, broken up between gentle vocals and interjected conversation of the song lyrics; with them laughing through their practice. The ensemble accompanied this track brilliantly, forming together to create a ticking clock; with the theming of time being crucial to the couple being ready to attend the Pan Pacific’s.
The creative ensemble behind Strictly Ballroom was crucial to the narrative structure of the performance. Within the supporting cast, stand-out favourites included: Karen Mann as Fran’s Abuela, alongside Jose Agudo as Fran’s father, Rico. At first, Fran is incredibly hesitant to let Scott into her private life–she’s nothing like him in terms of family; having Latin American roots and living in a milk shop. However, it’s at the end of the first act where this family unit comes together, in the truly stunning “A Life Lived In Fear”, sung as an ensemble number; fronted by Rico, Scott and Abuela as the correct way to dance the Pasodoble, in all its Spanish military glory.
As a collective ensemble, the cast didn’t miss a beat; with the opening “Strictly Ballroom” and “Heavenly Pineapple” being highlights as original songs for the musical, alongside iconic songs such as “Love Is in the Air” and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”.
Set design from Mark Walters was incredibly effective; using the implementation of an LED screen built into the overall design of the staging. Unlike many performances I’ve seen before that use painted, canvas backdrops, Walters instead took still photographs of locations in order to create truly seamless transitions from location to location. Whether in the dance studio, in the Ballroom or at the milk shack; a complimentary image faded onto the screen, never distracting from the storyline. This LED screen was also incredibly useful when displaying images on a larger screen–during a flashback scene, where Scott is taught about his father’s past, many images of Doug Hastings (Mark Sangster) were put up on this digital screen in order to get the audience fully immersed.
The staging itself was rather simple, having a plentiful amount of open floor space to act as the dance floor. Surrounding this was wooden curvature, within which parts of the set were cleverly hidden within; making the need for props to be flown in or moved in from backstage to a minimal amount. No matter the location; Walters’ set design kept the audience entertained and focused on this romantic comedy and its amazing cast and crew.
Lighting design from Richard G. Jones truly complimented the set; with the implementation of small multi-coloured bulbs built into the staging that adapted their hues accordingly to fit the aesthetic of each scene. But what Jones really took advantage of within this design was the use of traditional spotlights, which bounced off the glitter and glitz of the Ballroom attire, adding sparkle to the stage. But even when the glamour wasn’t at the forefront, the use of spotlighting was used incredibly effectively, especially within Kevin Clifton’s solo number as Scott, “Shooting Star”.
The use of a single spotlight on Clifton in this scene truly created a feeling of loneliness, with him having earned the disdain of his more conventionally-minded colleagues, due to his new dancing techniques and moves being frowned upon. Being alone on the stage, this number combined both song and dance; frustration and passion as the spotlight produced silhouettes of the performer that surrounded him within the stage’s curvature. With Clifton’s silhouettes dancing the same moves as him; this created quite a beautiful scene through Jones’ lighting; forming a sense of hope that he wasn’t alone in his unconventional thinking–with this being backed up with Fran’s morals as his eventual partner.
Strictly Ballroom is a musical that strictly shouldn’t be missed. By adapting acclaimed Aussie director Baz Luhrmann’s original film into an adaptation backed with Strictly Come Dancing stardom, it’s a show that comes to life perfectly for a stage adaptation. With Maisie Smith & Kevin Clifton reuniting for this UK tour, I definitely felt the love in the air for these talented performers; ending the night with a truly deserved standing ovation.
Review by Holly Wigmore