Strictly Ballroom centres on Scott Hastings, played by Jonny Labey, a talented ballroom dancer who wants to break free of the rules of Australian ballroom dance competitions and dance his own steps. His dance partner knows that if he persists in breaking the rules they can’t win the competition, so he finds himself partnerless. Into the void steps mousey and insecure Fran (‘just Fran’) – the estimable Zizi Strallen – who, not so gradually, turns from an unnoticed wallflower at the dance studio where he trains into a stunningly talented dancer, as they storm their way through the competition finale and into each others’ hearts.
Just joining the show this week as the MC is Matt Cardle. He’s previously starred in the musical Memphis and will be known to many for winning the X factor (in 2010). He brought an easy and winning charm to his role as the narrator with, to my ears, a convincing Aussie accent. He also sings beautifully. And as this is a juke box musical he gets to test himself against a variety of song styles because, unusually, the cast don’t get to sing much themselves. Songs generally appear to accompany dance lessons or competition rounds, so the main cast do the dancing and Mr Cardle does the singing.
Jonny Labey as Scott is serious and convincing in his desire to dance. Not only that, his dancing skills are first class. Zizi Strallen is just so watchable and handles the transformation from inelegant ducking to dancing swan with style.
Performances from the supporting cast a generally broad and played for laughs whenever possible. Anna Francolini as Shirley, Scott’s mum, in particular has a ball. And Gerard Horan (who you may recognise from the brilliant TV comedy The Detectorists) dons a magnificent blonde wig to play the king of Aussie ballroom, keeper of the rules and Scott’s nemesis, Barry Fife, as if to the manor born.
Whilst the show has elements of Dirty Dancing in its story, it seems to be going all-out for a Mamma Mia vibe. And in my view, succeeding magnificently. It is huge fun and because it’s centred on dancing there is little need to shoe-horn songs in that tell the story or illuminate the characters – although some succeed in doing both.
The finale to Act One is a brilliant dance number and my only complaint is that I was expecting something to top that at the end of the show and felt short-changed by a conclusion that seemed a little hurried. But this is a small issue in a good-hearted and fun-filled show.
Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office. Strictly Ballroom is at London’s Piccadilly theatre, booking until October 2018.