Strictly Ballroom: The Musical

May 10 2023 | By More

★★★★☆   Ballroom bliss

Edinburgh Playhouse: Mon 8 May – Sat 13 May 2023
Review by Martin Gray

Strictly Come Dancing comes full circle at the Edinburgh Playhouse this week as ‘Kevin from Grimsby’ stars in Strictly Ballroom: The Musical.

The production is partly based on the experiences of the BBC show’s creative director Jason Gilkison, who’s co-choreographed the musical alongside director Craig Revel Horwood from, of course, Strictly. And the big name draw is Kevin Clifton, who lifted the glitterball in 2018 with celebrity and now real-life partner Stacey Dooley, who stars with him….

Faye Brookes and Kevin Clifton. Pic: Ellie Kurttz

… only kidding, documentary maker Stacey isn’t here, the female lead is Faye Brookes. She’s best known for Coronation Street but is a leading lady with a wealth of experience in stage musicals.

Brookes dazzles as Fran (‘Just Fran’), a relative beginner who wants to twirl with golden boy Scott Hastings (Clifton) after he loses longtime partner Liz. She’s flounced off, after the dance floor rebel Scott’s insistence on using his own, crowd-pleasing moves in their routines loses them competitions. It’s strictly ballroom, you see.

But will Scott risk taking on a trainee when the spectacular Tina Sparkle is also suddenly in want of a partner. What would Scott’s pushy dance studio-owning mother and Fran’s overprotective father think? How will competitions kingpin Barry Fife react to Scott’s bid to do his own thing at the Pan-Pacific contest? And what the heck is a bogo pogo?

emotional journey

All questions are entertainingly answered in this stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s beloved 1992 film comedy. While not a musical, the film soundtrack did use a few pop tracks, and here the likes of Time After Time and Love is in the Air move into the mouths of the madcap members of the Aussie dance community. They’re cleverly inserted into the story to progress the emotional journey of Scott and Fran, but it’s the show’s original songs which provide the real glitter.

A scene from Strictly Ballroom – the Musical. Pic: Ellie Kurttz

Barry Fife! introduces us to the show’s larger-than-life Australian Dance Federation chief in fantastic style, as Gary Davis belts out the big number. The actor has even more fun with New Steps Nightmare, joined by members of the excellent ensemble in their undies.

The Looks, The Charm, in which Barry offers some backstory on Scott’s sad dad Doug – a superb Mark Sangster – is a hoot too, but the more serious numbers also shine. Fran’s Epiphany is gorgeous, while Beautiful Surprise shared by Fran and Scott is heartbreakingly lovely.

holding its collective breath

Best of all, though, is the A Life Lived in Fear sequence which closes Act One, as Fran’s fierce father demonstrates the spirit of flamenco to Scott. Jose Agudo had the press night audience holding its collective breath as he married precision to emotion.

There is a title number, which opens Act One and pops up again later, with waltz time music but it’s too layered to take in its character introductions. Happily, all becomes clear as Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s script progresses.

A scene from Strictly Ballroom – the Musical. Pic: Ellie Kurttz

Kevin Clifton is a revelation. Of course he can dance a dream but it turns out his singing is more than serviceable and his acting is really rather decent – he’s thoroughly convincing as he essays Scott’s journey from arrogant wunderkind to perfect partner. He’s even pretty good at the Aussie accent – maybe it’s all those years spent with Antipodean Strictly colleagues. And while initially dubious at the fact Clifton is about twice as old as his character, his natural boyishness soon has one forgetting such stuff.

Faye Brookes’s Fran is the emotional heart of the show – when she arrives on stage in Act One things really kick into gear. Brookes brings all the lessons learnt on a demanding soap to bear in making Fran more than the classic ugly duckling. And boy, can she sing and dance. Brookes and Clifton make a great stage partnership, their climatic paso doble finding the right balance between steamy and sweet.

tender wisdom

Also striking is Karen Mann as Abuela – that’s Spanish for grandma – whose tender wisdom helps Fran embrace the lesson she’s been trying to teach Scott: a life lived in fear is a life half lived.

A scene from Strictly Ballroom – the Musical. Pic: Ellie Kurttz

Kieran Cooper, a graduate of Edinburgh’s MGA Academy of Performing Arts, plays Scott’s pal Wayne, who’s far more desperate to learn the bogo pogo move than any sane man should be. It’s a shame he’s saddled, for no obvious reason, with a ginger fright wig.

With glittering costumes, a clever, adaptable set, and sharp lighting, the designs match the performances. The players make the most of an occasionally hilarious script – Clifton’s comedy moves are used to great effect – while the band led by Dustin Conrad is on fire.

It’s a shame theatre stages – even one as large as the Playhouse’s – don’t allow for expansive dance floor action, but Revel Horwood’s canny direction makes the most of the space. And there’s a moment towards the end which translates one of the film’s most memorable moments into a piece of theatrical magic. By the time the final number arrives – the whole cast singing Love is in the Air – pretty much the whole audience was on its feet and ready to throw the proverbial shapes.

If you’ve ever been even a little bewitched by the glamour of the glitterball, Strictly Ballroom: The Musical will send your spirits soaring.

Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes (including one interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA.
Mon 8 – Sat 13 May 2023
Evening Mon – Sat: 7.30pm; Matinee Wed, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Glasgow Theatre Royal, 282 Hope Street, Glasgow G2 3QA.
Mon 5 – Sat 10 June 2023.
Evenings: 7.30; Matinees Weds, Sat: 2.30pm.

Tickets and details: Book here.


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