On its opening night at the Mayflower Southampton, Strictly Ballroom – the stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s beloved film set in the cut-throat world of competitive ballroom dancing in Australia – was without its female lead.
I say “lead” because in the absence of former EastEnders actress Maisie Smith, the show had a new star in the form of understudy Poppy Blackledge.
It was almost a case of life imitating art as Miss Blackledge stepped up to join headliner Kevin Clifton just as her character, beginner dancer Fran, gets to partner Clifton’s fast-rising but rebellious ballroom boy Scott Hastings – except of course that Miss Blackledge is a polished professional.
Any disappointment I had at not seeing the expected artist was wiped away as soon as this newcomer walked on stage. With her voice, comic timing and dance ability, she was surely born to play this role. If I were director Craig Revel Horwood, I’d stick with this “Sheila”.
Talking of born to play a part who could be better as Scott than the charismatic Clifton, a dancer from a dynasty of champions who clinched the glitter ball in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2018.
Here he proves he can also hold a tune and more than cut it as an actor with an impressive Aussie accent to boot – an undoubted “triple threat”, although on a stage crowded with comic characters it sometimes felt as if his power as a dancer was somewhat constrained.
The quality of the dance numbers, as you’d imagine, were top notch – but by no means strictly ballroom, featuring various styles, including a sensational flamenco infused sequence courtesy of Jose Agudo, plus scintillating Fosse influenced routines. Well, with Revel Horwood co–choreographing (alongside fellow Aussie and Strictly Come Dancing creative director Jason Gilkison), you wouldn’t expect anything less, darling!
Dazzlingly bright outfits and overblown wigs softly satirised the conventions of the competitive ballroom with its exaggerated styles and hairdos.
Set in 1990, at points the comedy veered dangerously close to feeling dated, yet the juxtaposing of the somewhat surreal world of ballroom & Latin, with its affected elegance and camp costumes, against the brash irreverence of Aussie humour, still worked somehow.
The central story of two lovers breaking the rules that bind them is of course timeless, played out to a score that includes well-loved songs such as Love is in the Air and Time after Time, mixed with new music from the likes of Sia, David Foster and Eddie Perfect.
While not strictly for dance lovers, this musical is surely a “must” for them and a riotous, joy for all. Runs until Saturday.
Review by Angie Owens