Strictly Ballroom the Musical – West Yorkshire Playhouse

Gemma Sutton as Fran and Sam Lips as Scott in Strictly Ballroom The Musical. Photography by Alastair Muir.

Gemma Sutton and Sam Lips in Strictly Ballroom the Musical at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. Pictures: Alastair Muir

Strictly Ballroom the Musical at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until 21 January 2017.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Baz Luhrmann’s original vision for Strictly Ballroom was a student musical presenting a primary myth (one generation renewing life by breaking with entrenched ritual and  tradition) in the unlikely context of ballroom dancing (Luhrmann and Craig Pearce are credited for the book, with Terry Johnson adapting).

Later, the concept evolved into a hit film (released 1992) and went on to influence the programme that we refer to simply as Strictly.

Indeed, the synergy between Strictly Ballroom and the BBC show continued when a feature about the West Yorkshire Playhouse production (on spin-off programme It Takes Two) crashed the Playhouse’s website on the night it was broadcast.

The present incarnation, in its UK premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is bold, brash and tremendous fun.

All the elements we remember from the film are there: the rebellious youngster who wants to innovate; the bullying administrator; the over-bearing mother and ineffectual father; the heroine who grows in confidence as love blossoms.

What’s not to like?

Sam Lips, Gary Watson and the company of Strictly Ballroom The Musical. Photography by Alastair Muir.

Sam Lips, Gary Watson and the company of Strictly Ballroom the Musical

Sam Lips is engaging as the conflicted Scott Hastings, portraying the feud between his own emotions and ambitions, while trying to rescue the family dance school from the threat of closure. His dancing and singing skills, particularly fine during the male ensemble pieces, prove stronger than his acting prowess for now.

Gemma Sutton grows throughout the show as Fran, revealing a family talent for the Paso Doble (wonderfully danced by Fernando Mira as Rico). Eventually, she saves Scott from himself in the final, redemptive scene.

The show is replete with great songs, some of them hits of their time, and dance routines that could melt the rivets out of the lighting rig.

Costumes (Catherine Martin) for the girls are dazzling and all you would expect of a show set around a dance competition.

Sutton, of course, has to look different from the others to fit the theme of rebellion. Unfortunately, she just looks a little dowdy in the climactic scene.

Julius D’Silva is oily and manipulative as Barry Fife, drawing panto-villain boos from the audience, while they gasp at Charlotte Gooch’s (Tina Sparkle) insouciant high-kicking.

David Caddick leads the excellent ten-piece band through the variety of styles characteristic of dance competitions.

Director and choreographer Drew McOnie sets a cracking pace for the singing and dancing, but there are a couple of blemishes in the characterisations: Barry is allowed too many rug jokes, which detracts from his humiliation at the end of Act II, and Scott’s gesture of despair (hapless arms spread wide) is surely repeated too frequently.

The set (Soutra Gilmour) is flexible, and I am willing to bet you have never witnessed scene changers pirouette as they move a flat.

Co-lighting designers Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone are rightly garish in the dance numbers, but provide plenty of subtlety for Fran’s scenes where she hints at her infatuation with Scott.

The age-range of the audience members, and their standing ovation verdict, suggests this show is strictly for everyone.

Mike Tilling


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