“Indeed, the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration… It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not… It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.”
(Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, 1964)
If theatre is a metaphor for life then maybe the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship of Strictly Ballroom symbolises something of its joie de vivre. Luhrmann’s 1992 movie is a natural fit for translation as a stage musical. The bright lights! The sequins! A sweeping floor of Latin American routines inexplicably made moving by the strains of Cyndi Lauper! The ingredients for a camp wonderland are here.
But it’s frustrating, because there are only glimpses throughout of the glittering juggernaut this show had the potential to be. It seems oddly content to be relatively vanilla, despite having the promise of being a full knickerbocker glory, with sparklers, and booze-pickled cherries, and edible gold and… and… and …
Strictly Ballroom is much like its presentation of the show’s protagonist Scott Hastings. Jonny Labey is a swoon-able leading man with the cheek and the cheekbones of Zac Efron, but we never fully get to see his ground-breaking moves. Apparently so daring that they floor the Australian federation judges, we see little more than some knee slides. This could in part be due to how the space has been orchestrated in Soutra Gilmour’s dark, industrial set (intersected with a brilliant use of flouros from lighting designer Howard Hudson), which exploits the Piccadilly stage’s verticals, cutting the dance floor down to a minimum. Scott’s blossoming romance with novice dancer Fran (Zizi Strallen) needs space to unfurl, to fly in epic lifts and swooshes. Here, the duo feel constricted.
Yet this apparently presents no such problem to Scott and Fran’s rival, the rictus-grinning Ken (Gary Watson). Throwing partners Tina Sparkles (Charlotte Gooch) and Liz (Lauren Stroud) around the stage, Watson embodies the terrifying teeth, tits and talent of the competition. He also leads in terms of capturing the comedy of Luhrmann’s original – Strictly Ballroom IS camp, it IS silly, but for the characters within that world it is a matter of life and quickstep. If the competitors don’t seem truly invested in what is (admittedly utterly insignificant in the face of wider socio-economic world problems) at stake, then what are we all doing here?
If ballroom dancing under the draconian Australian federation can be considered as some sort of totalitarian hell before Scott’s improvisation, then Will Young is our Virgil. His host, Wally Strand, guides us through with haunting melodies and completely unnecessary narration. Young’s singing is beautiful and with impressive range, managing to give his own twist to the wide jukebox soundtrack, (though ‘Dance Magic Dance’ deserved better than that odd reworking).
But who is Wally? Young never seems to put down roots for the character, his Wally teeters between the innocence of Gringoire in Notre Dame de Paris and the sinister undercurrent he brought to the emcee of Cabaret in 2012. Is Wally not human at all, some sort of a semi-spectral spirit of the dance? If he is, he’s an overly tactile one that keeps stroking the arms and heads of the couples whose dance solos he’s serenading like some pervy poltergeist.
Therein lies the limitations of Strictly Ballroom: in this incarnation it isn’t really a musical, it’s a Will Young concert with a bit of story and some lovely things to look at. Costumer Catherine Martin brings the same magic that she deftly wove through Luhrmann’s movies. We are swept up in a dream of decadent swirls of frothy neons and feathers, punctuated by visual moments of the stunningly ridiculous, such as Tina Sparkles pineapple two piece.
If only we could be so carried away by the rest of the show. A sole sequence featuring Fran’s family teaching Scott the passion needed for the Pasa Doble evokes any actual wonder. Fernando Mira steals the show as Fran’s father Rico and I’d figure a fair number of hearts in his hot-blooded flamenco stamps, fiery-eyed and feet aflame. If Scott and Fran’s rumba was the dance of love, then the Latin steps are pure sex.
Otherwise Strictly Ballroom is so close to being a flight of fancy that tips you out of the theatre, briefly considering booking foxtrot classes. But there’s a vacuum where that strange fluttering of the heart the best musicals induce should be and no amount of sequins can compensate its absence.
Strictly Ballroom is at the Piccadilly Theatre until October 20th. For more details, click here.