scott and fran

Kevin Clifton as Scott and Maisie Smith as Fran find themselves in Flamenco. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

Strictly Ballroom – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome


Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 Australian movie has deservedly become a cult classic, poking gentle and affectionate fun at the ultra competitive world of ballroom dancing in a witty, romantic comedy which is tremendous fun and full of heart.

The stage version, premiered in Sydney in 2014, doesn’t fully capture the essence of the film – the heart is missing, while the characters have become more two dimensional, which is not to say it isn’t an enjoyable show, it builds nicely to its feelgood ending, it is just that it could have been more.

The story is the same, Scott, the son of a ballroom dancing family, is tipped to be the next Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Latin Dancing Champion, except he wants to dance his way with his own, non-federation steps.

Then there is the dance novice, Fran a beginner with no partner,, seemingly plain and ordinary, who persuades Scott to dance with her because she wants to dance his way.

They start with a rumba with Scott explaining it is a dance of love but they are pretend lovers, with the emphasis on pretend – mind you we haven’t got to the take off the glasses and let the hair fall down Hollywood moment yet.

Kevin Clifton as Scott and Maisie Smith as Fran are the star names. Clifton is a former professional dancer, and champion, on Strictly Come Dancing, making his way in musical theatre while Smith played Tiffany Butcher on EastEnders for 13 years, as well as winning the Children in Need: Strictly Come Dancing Special with Clifton in 2019.

She then reached the Strictly final the following year. It's her first foray into musical theatres and she has a lovely singing voice we discover. 

A pity we only get snatches of most of the songs, her voice is worth more. There are a lot of songs in there with standards such as Love is in The Air and Time After Time, and plenty of dances, but often we get just a few bars and steps with only the end of each act giving dancers a real chance to shine.

gran on trumpet

Fran with her truumpet playing gran Abuela played by Karen Mann

Clifton and Smith might be the headliners but the show’s star though is Andalucia’s Jose Agudo as Rico, Fran’s father.

He started his career as a Flamenco dancer, a bailaor, and he performs a stunning Flamenco Paso doble in a finale to act I after Rico confronts Scott as to what dance keeps his daughter out so late. It is a scene that lifts the entire production.

Rico and his family run a milk bar and the customers seem a century out of date in clothes that would not look out of place in a tango bar in the harbour district of La Boca in Buenos Aires early last century. Incongruous, maybe, but it works.

The result is a full cast dance which is inventive, spectacular and full of Latin passion and life.

Another star is Karen Mann as Abuela, Fran’s gran, who incidentally plays a mean trumpet. She teaches Scott that rhythm is felt not in the head but in the heart, the duende, the emotion and soul of Flamenco, as she starts the palmas, the rhythmic clapping to set the tempo.

There is good support from Nikki Belsher as Shirley Hastings, Scott’s mum who runs the family dance studio and is desperate for Scott to win the title she never managed, and whose emotions run from screams to happy face.

Then there is her dance studio partner, non- romantic he assures us, Les Kendall. Les, played by Quinn Patrick, could be the Aussie cousin of Modern Family’s Cameron Tucker. Like Shirley he is wanting what he sees as the best for Scott who he has known since birth.

Then there is Barry Fife, played with autocratic air by Gary Davis. Barry’s word is law and his law is that only regulation ballroom dancing steps as defined by him and generations before him are allowed.

He’s also a bit of a . . . well not so much a ladies’ man as a common or garden lecher. I am not quite sure why half his conversations took place in bed or why it had to involved that long lost character from Hamlet, Fellatio, or indeed why we needed four men in underpants urinating into the scenery.

It all seems a little tawdry and unnecessary. It might get cheap laughs but the simple point could have been made in a more family friendly way with far more subtlety – after all his wandering hands, and other bits are hardly the nub of the story.

Then, if you even notice him until the final moments we have Doug, Shirley’s husband, and odd job man at the studio. Doug, played with a commendable lack of enthusiasm by Mark Sangster, does what he is told, without complaint, without emotion, without anything really. Yet, it is his dramatic intervention in the final scene which makes the story spark into triumphal life.

father Doug

Mark Sangster as Doug - Mark's career incidentally started as a drummer in a punk rock band

The final scene, incidentally, has the problem that all the competitors in the snappily named Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Latin Dancing Championship are on stage at once, and even on the vast Hippo stage it is a big ask to have so many couples and still be able to concentrate on Scott and Fran, which is after all the crux of the story.

Craig Revel Horwood is a fine director and choreographer, sharing the choreography in this case with  Jason Gilkison, but the final scene is confusing, a bit of a mess until Barry tries to disqualify Scott and Fran. 

The music is turned off, the dancing stops and the no longer timid Doug starts the palmas, the rhythmic clapping, so Scott and Fran now front stage can continue their dance. The competition is forgotten, everyone joins in, Scott and Fran triumph and are pretend lovers no more.

There is fine support from an ensemble of dancers with Danielle Cato as Tina Sparkle, Kieran Cooper as Scott’s friend Wayne and Agnes Pure as Scott’s original partner Liz.

The show had a difficult start. Problems at New Street Station saw a delay and a new theatre on first night meant the first few minutes had somewhat indistinct articulation, a posh way of saying you couldn’t make out the words, not until Shirley and Les appeared bemoaning the fact Scott had done his own steps and lost in his last competition.

And there were times when what was being said or sung was not as clear as it might have been so Rory Madden’s sound design might need a tweak for this new venue.

Mark Walters’ set and costume design was a masterclass of simplicity with a large window at the back where video projection set the set the scene from dance studio, to moonlit night, to ballroom to milk bar, with a stage of pull out flats which changed scenes in an instant with no pause in the action.

While music came from an excellent six piece band under Musical Director Justin Conrad.

The Musical was due to tour in 2020 but Covid put paid to that but the core message of the film and musical now have a poignant echo that a life lived in fear is a life half lived and perhaps this musical could have been a little braver to take it the extra few steps up to the exceptional. The ballroom will be open to 5-11-22.

Roger Clarke


sign off

Strictly Ballroom started life as a student short stage play Baz Luhrmann devised with mates at college in Sydney. A few years later, after success in Czech youth festivals it had a hit season in Sydney which led to Luhrmann’s directoral debut and the first of his Red Curtain Trilogy (with Romeo + Juliet in 1996 and 2001's Moulin Rouge!)

The play was based on experience. Luhrmann had had ballroom dance lessons as a child and his mother was a teacher in a dance studio in his teens. It was also influenced by Australian dance superstar Keith Bain, (1926-2012) who was Australian Ballroom Exhibition Champion and Latin-American Champion, loved by audiences but he baffled the judges in dance competitions with the unconventional style of him and his partner, Joyce Lofts.

Another source was joint choreographer Jason Gilkison, a former Australian Latin champion with long time dance partner Peta Robey, who was quizzed by Luhrmann about life in the quick, quick, slow lane. The pair were known for their own penchant for unconventional steps and routines.

The low budget movie became one of the highest grossing Australian films of all time and among other things inspired a certain Strictly Come Dancing. 


Strictly Ballroom will be dancing in the Midlands again next year at Wolverhampton Grand, 13-18 February 2023

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