Theatre review - Strictly Ballroom, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

The Company of Strictly Ballroom The Musical. Photography by Alastair Muir.

The Company of Strictly Ballroom The Musical. Photography by Alastair Muir. - Credit: Archant

Jo Haywood is bedazzled by Baz Luhrmann’s glittertastic globe-trotter.

After last year’s magical flying car, West Yorkshire Playhouse has decided to go for an understated little number for its 2016 festive show.

Oh no, it hasn’t! (To use a typical panto trope that you’ll never hear on the Quarry stage.) And thank heavens, Rudolph and the little baby Jesus for that because, even if you don’t go down the thigh-slapping, cross-dressing route, the most fabulous festive shows are always big, bold and, in this case, completely bonzer (an Australian colloquialism for first-rate, or so I’m told).

Strictly Ballroom, created by Baz Luhrmann – the unofficial Wizard of Aus – and brought to Leeds for its international premiere, is the polar opposite of understated. It’s a giant glitterball of a show, with more sequins, feathers and silver shoes than your average drag queen convention. In fact, the phrase ‘camp as Christmas’ has never been so apt.

It tells the story of hip-swivelling young dance innovator Scott Hastings and cardigan-wearing, blind as a bat Fran (‘just Fran’) as they rumba, paso doble and cha-cha-cha their way through to the final of the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship.

But first they must out-foxtrot the likes of Ken Railings, the white-haired, white-toothed, black-hearted dance champ; Barry Fife, the bombastic dictator of the Australian ballroom mafia; and Shirley Hastings, Scott’s own mother, who’ll stop at nothing to see her boy lifting the trophy that evaded her in her high-kicking heyday.

They also have to bring together two families from two very different cultures, in a feather-plumed nod to Luhrmann’s other boy-meets-girl triumph Romeo & Juliet, only this time with a happy ending and no deaths (unless you count Barry Fife’s career and the deceased wallaby he wears on his head in lieu of hair).

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The improbably-named Sam Lips is perfectly cast as Scott Hastings, bringing just enough ‘no one understands me’ huffiness to his all-singing, all-dancing central role to add an edge that raises him above the twirling dervish of competition dancers.

Lips is the classic theatrical triple-threat – he dances, he sings and he acts with a quite ridiculous degree of talent. Strictly Ballroom marks his UK theatre debut, but his magnificent turn (dip and glide) in this magical show must surely mean it’s only a short step (ball, turn) from West Yorkshire to West End stardom.

Gemma Sutton as Fran has the less glittery role of the central duo, but her beautiful voice and highly affecting phrasing brings depth to what is otherwise a blissfully shallow show. Her range is shown off to particularly good effect in the stirring duet, Love Is A Leap Of Faith, with Abuela, her Spanish grandmother, played with warmth and wicked humour by the small but mighty Eve Polycarpou.

While the dance hall numbers are superb, particularly when all the ballroom pairs are spinning in unison under the glitterball in glorious gowns created by Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin, it’s actually a number played out in a dimly-lit suburban backyard that provides the standout (stand up and cheer) moment of the show.

When Rico, Fran’s father played with muchas machismo by Australia’s foremost flamenco dancer Fernando Mira, takes on Scott in a Latin American dance-off while the company performs the first act closer, Magnifico, the atmosphere in the Quarry theatre becomes noticeably charged. As the stomping and clapping on-stage escalates, so does the atmosphere in the auditorium. It’ completely electric.

Which probably goes some way to explaining the statically charged uplift of most of the characters’ hair. There’s the not-quite-dead wild animal wig of Barry Fife, with Julius D’Silva putting in a grotesque yet masterly turn with hints of Sir Les Patterson, Benny Hill and Donald Trump; the bouffant pouf of JJ Silvers, played with a winning hop, skip and wink by Richard Dempsey; and the white tidal wave of Les Kendall, played with a featherlight touch by Richard Grieve, who daytime TV fans might know as either Sam Kratz in Neighbours or Dr Lachlan Frazer in Home & Away. All were having a high old time to match their hair.

If there are any niggles with the cast, they are minor. Perhaps Stephen Matthews, as Scott’s downtrodden dad Doug, could pull back on the pathos a bit, and Gemma Sutton could have a bit more fun with her lead role, but these are trifling complaints in an avalanche of praise.

To sum up, Strictly Ballroom is utterly amazeballs. And not just any amazeballs either. We’re talking giant glittery amazeballs.

Strictly Ballroom: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until January 21st