Review - Strictly Ballroom (Piccadilly Theatre)

Just when it seems the West End couldn’t get any glitzier, Drew McOnie’s glittery adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 cult hit Strictly Ballroom transfers to London, leaving a trail of sequins in its wake. Following a smash hit premiere in Leeds, the vibrant new musical is currently storming the stage of the Piccadilly Theatre, and providing enough raucous fun to rival even the most popular West End stalwarts.

Zizi Strallen and Jonny Labey in Strictly Ballroom
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Scott Hastings is an ace dancer with his sights set on the ballroom dancing big leagues. Unfortunately, a passion for inventing his own steps lands him in hot water, and his put upon dance partner Liz abandons him, leaving him solo just weeks before the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix competition. Enter Fran, a dorky wannabe dancer with frilly ankle socks and an almighty crush on the rebel golden boy at the dance studio she attends. Scott reluctantly partners with Fran and helps her to blossom into the master hoofer she dreams of being. But up her sleeves she’s got some surprise moves of her own!

Simply put, Strictly Ballroom is irresistible. Choreographed to perfection by Drew McOnie, this is one musical where the dance aspect undoubtedly outshines all other facets of the production. Mastering the exhilarating moves, Zizi Strallen is an unparalleled leading lady, alongside the equally charming Jonny Labey. Undoubtedly, they've got to be top contenders for the West End's most charismatic on-stage couple. Strallen is as convincing as the klutzy beginner Fran as she is as the willowy star who emerges after weeks of rigorous training. Meanwhile, Labey brings lots of light and shade to Scott, the smug competitor, and as a result their joint journey gives the overblown story a surprisingly emotional heart.

However, while the slick and impressive dancing and compelling leading duo keep the show looking glossy throughout, Strictly Ballroom is slightly let down by its use, or rather underuse, of music. The musical’s jukebox soundtrack is certainly fun, and played with verve by an extraordinarily zesty on-stage band whose relentless beats kept the energy on a nonstop high, but it all feels rather incidental, which is unusual for such a theatrical West End show.

The songs of Strictly Ballroom are, for the very most part, performed by onetime Pop Idol winner Will Young, who has made a name for himself as a dependable musical theatre performer over the last few years. Here he plays extravagant commentator Wally Strand, a ballroom dance fanatic with energy to spare. He adds some extra humour to the proceedings, and sings up a storm, but despite this his presence feels a little shoehorned in. It would been nice to see Wally Strand take a more active role in the story, thus justifying his presence. In contrast, at one of the musical’s emotional high points, it is glorious to hear Fran and Scott finally sing out to each other in an expression of love, but sadly it’s a rather short lived moment which fades quickly.

That being said, the whole production comes together so impeccably that its faults are easy to look past, especially when the musical is taken for what it is; a dazzling and hilarious bit of over-the-top fun! Sure, the dancing may be a spectacle on its own, but the whole production revels in glorious excess. 

With eye-popping costumes, overflowing with dreamily garish sparkle, decking out a bedazzling supporting cast, including Anna Francolini as Scott’s unyielding dance mom, Strictly Ballroom is a feel-good visual feast which will mesmerize audiences from start to finish. And yes, there’s even a confetti cannon to bring everything to a close!

Review - H.R. Haitch (Union Theatre)

Royal Wedding fever is well and truly taking over, and in the midst of the furore around Prince Harry and Megan Markle’s nuptials, Luke Bateman and Maz Evans bring their new musical, H.R. Haitch to the Union Theatre.
The cast of H.R. Haitch
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
In a fictionalised version of 2011, the British public is preparing to vote in a referendum on whether the monarchy should be disbanded. H.R. Haitch follows up-and-coming chef and proud working class Londoner Chelsea Taylor as she discovers that her sweet if slightly witless boyfriend and fellow culinary artiste Bertie is actually Prince Albert, the secret heir to the British throne. For most, the news would be a dream, but not Chelsea, a firm antimonarchist.

The dynamic between Chelsea and Albert is definitely the musical’s greatest asset, with Tori Allen-Martin and Christian James working sweetly as a couple, with excellent voices to match their lovable performances. It’s just a shame the plot doesn’t focus more closely on their struggle to balance their relationship and career goals with the pressures of the prying media and rabid public. The secondary plot lines (and there are many, ranging from a campaign to save Chelsea’s dad’s pub, to Chelsea’s grandma’s sexting escapades, via a pig-gate scandal and convoluted blackmailing plot - of course) are fun and offer great opportunities for the rest of the cast to show off their multiroling, but they also water down the central couple’s time on stage massively. The representation of the Queen as a potty mouthed woman with a comically massive hatred of both her dim-witted cartoonified son, and the majority of the British public, provides a few chuckles initially but is a joke which could do with being utilised more sparingly. 
Tori Allen-Martin and Christian James in H.R. Haitch
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
As it stands though, H.R. Haitch is a fun romp, but suffers from not only a slightly muddled plot but also several character inconsistencies which seem to do little more than pad the run time. Chelsea is established as a young woman who despises the Royal Family, but when she is confronted by them she seems utterly, genuinely star struck, despite the fact that when she previously met her royal boyfriend’s sister, Princess Victoria, she made her disdain for the crown pretty well known right away. H.R. Haitch also does a fair bit of dancing around Chelsea and Albert’s on-off relationship, and even attempts a Princess Diaries style makeover, but at no point does it seem at all necessary. The public is said to love the down-to-earth Prince once his identity is uncovered, and therefore having a more grounded girlfriend by his side would surely be seen as an advantage.

Negativities aside, there’s also a lot to enjoy in H.R. Haitch. The adventures of Andrea Miller as Chelsea’s lascivious grandma Vera, kitted out in an animal print blouse and pleather skirt, are extremely comical, Christopher Lyne does an excellent job multiroling as both Chelsea’s dad and the Prince Charles inspired Prince Richard, and Emily Jane Kerr’s turn as conniving Princess Victoria is a perfect mix of maniacal and yet strangely sympathetic. There are also some extremely catchy numbers peppered throughout, and those which show off the vocal abilities of the central couple are particularly fulfilling. Tori Allen-Martin is the perfect everywoman with a cracking voice to match, and Christian James is hilariously hapless every moment he is on stage. Undoubtedly this musical could do with a bit of fat trimming and streamlining, but with such an excellent ensemble cast, H.R. Haitch is a new musical comedy with plenty of potential.

Review - Nightfall (Bridge Theatre)

In Nightfall playwright Barney Norris paints a blistering portrait of a family in crisis, and agonisingly explores a mother's attempts to keep her family together after tragedy threatens to pull them apart.

The cast of Nightfall
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
It begins with an idyllic night, 3 childhood friends (Ryan, his sister Lou, and her old flame Pete, Ryan's childhood best friend), doctoring a hose to syphon oil from a pipe running through the back garden of Ryan and Lou's family farm. The opening scene sets place at nightfall, as the title helpfully suggests, and Chris Davey's lighting design sees a murky sunset cast its light across the long back wall of the Bridge Theatre. There's an air of discomfort, uncertainty, from the outset, but it's pushed aside to make room for folksy chats about astrology, drowned in beer which the uneasy party swig from the bottle. That is until a pair of bright white headlights signal the arrival of Ryan and Lou's mother, Jenny. Chastising her grown children like misbehaving toddlers, Her icy entrance ushers in a new wave of awkwardness, and from then on in there's not a second when the 4 aren't treading on eggshells, each straining in a different direction like magnets repelling one another.

The meaning behind what is insinuated by the awkwardness of the first scene is slowly unravelled. Amid the quaint yet ramshackle farmland of rural South England, artfully indicated by Rae Smith's bucolic set design, the 4 characters in Barney Norris’ Nightfall are struggling to open up to each other about the shared traumas which have tightly knotted them all to each other. The audience is quickly informed that Ryan and Lou's father recently passed away, leaving a hole in both of their lives, as well as a burden of responsibility to their family farm, but there's much more going on under the surface.

They’re a deeply damaged group, hiding their pains under strained smiles and posturing niceties, but it doesn’t take long for their truths to come to light. Smug yet lovable Pete recently did time for drunkenly punching and subsequently paralysing someone, frazzled Lou feels directionless, domineering Jenny is still coming to terms with the death of her husband and the debt he left her in, and Ryan, the introverted de facto 'man of the house', is slowly receding further and further into the secluded island of the family farm, whilst simultaneously detesting it. One of the strongest aspects of Nightfall is the way in which every character is dissected in front of the audience. On the bleak and remote farm there is nowhere for the fragmented party to hide, and as such, as they hurtle towards self-destruction, the audience can do nothing but observe.

Ophelia Lovibond and Ukweli Roach in Nightfall
Photo credit Manuel Harlan
Directed by Laurie Sansom, the cast of 4 do an excellent job of propelling the plot, with Ophelia Lovibond making a particularly strong mark as Lou, whose journey to escape the oppressive grasp of her mother leads her to a whirlwind marriage and relocation halfway around the world, which she’s not even sure she wants. Her desperation and dissatisfaction with life cuts sharply through the mugginess of the plot, and is utterly and strikingly believable. Sion Daniel Young is also endearing as Ryan, his pain and grief tangible from the moment he first opens his mouth. At the beginning of the play Ryan seems just a little bit pitiful alongside his more boisterous friend and sharp sister, but by the end he's a haunted shell of a young man, utterly racked with sadness. One gets the sense that he's been bossed around and babied by his mother so much that he's retreated into a childlike state as a coping mechanism in response to the death of his father. It's understated amid the big and loud arguments between Lou and her mother, but heartbreaking nevertheless. Elsewhere, Ukweli Roach gives smug yet lovable Pete energy and defiance needed to set him apart from the doldrums of the farm, and Claire Skinner does well to humanise the detestable matriarch Jenny, although Norris' script notably does little to help her out. 

Despite the painfully realistic plights presented in Norris’ play, the meaning of the piece as a whole never quite materialises in full. The characters all go through relatable life experiences, but none of them really take the foreground. The most prominent thread which runs through the play is that of responsibility, as explored through Ryan and Lou's rejection of their responsibility to protect the family farm, and Jenny’s overprotectiveness, born of responsibility to her family and her husband’s memory. But the idea is crowded by so many other themes and ideas, all jostling against one another, and as such it feels rather diluted for the majority of the play. 

Nightfall builds towards a rather inevitable bittersweet finale, but after the rumblings of secrecy and dissatisfaction which filter through from the very first scene, it feels as if both the characters and the audience expect a more explosive ending.