(Note: This is the second of two reviews posted on the same day. Read below or check the RSS feed for thoughts on the press launch for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Also, the RZ wrote this review between films at the Osamu Tezuka festival currently running at the Barbican and the public wifi was inconveniently borked, hence the lack of cast or creative names.)
Sometimes it’s fun to be the mean-spirited voice of doom when reviewing shows, but sometimes it’s an annoyance. Case in point, Come Dancing, the new musical concluding previews at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Written, scored, and narrated by ex-Kinks front-man Ray Davies, Come Dancing is meant to be a wistfully nostalgic look at dance hall culture in the oh-so-British 1950’s.
The good news is that it succeeds in most key aspects: the stage has been transformed into the local Palais, complete with onstage seating and a functional bar, the characters and attitudes are appropriately period, and while there’s a fair amount of cliché or face-palm worthy material, the good nature of the piece makes it quaintly familiar rather than preaching or hitting the audience over the head with the conceptual cricket bat. Davies’ score uses a handful of his hits, but also comes through with 20 new songs, all appealing if not catchy, and balances the evening between the big band standards and dance hall crooners of old and the early days of rock ‘n’ roll.
So where does it all go wrong? The biggest place is with Ray Davies himself. Not content to be a behind the scenes force, Davies goes Bright Lights Big City on the audience and takes over as a narrator, watching from the bar and commenting from time to time when not chatting with the leading lady. The result is that the show isn’t about dance hall culture but about HIM and HIS CRIPPLED SISTER and how HE wanted to write HIS song about it. The result, needless to say, is intrusive and self-indulgent: the material is strong enough to stand on its own, disabled girl seeking forbidden interracial love and all. Come Dancing’s second great weakness is in its direction: the night the RZ went, the scene and song->book->song transitions were slack and lacked sharpness and power. Admittedly, the RZ saw the show almost a week ago at the second preview, and the director could have cleaned this up greatly, but these are generally the last things to get attention. Given time the cast and band may resolve the issues on their own, or it could have been fixed already. Either way, the RZ wondered how much stronger the show would have been if, say, Des McAnuff had handled the direction.
These two flaws combine to form the third: the pacing. While the story is enjoyable and never drags, the action is slow to build in the first act with the last 5-10 minutes on comparative rocket speed in order to hit an appropriate point for an interval. The second act is better, and the RZ is unsure of whether or not this problem is fixable: the show is already tight at just over two hours, and there’s no room to cut the story any further. In a way, issue three could be a result of issue one: were Davies’ narrator to go and his lines and songs reassigned to the characters (all of which would work with somebody else singing them), the problem may resolve itself, but it’s hard to say and the RZ can’t quite put his finger on why it doesn’t work.
Therefore, it’s difficult to comfortably pass a final verdict: there’s a very good (though admittedly not a great or brilliant) show in Come Dancing, but it’s buried under the trappings of a decent to good one. The RZ would still encourage readers to see the show at Stratford East when tickets are still cheap, but couldn’t recommend it at higher West End or even touring prices without further retooling.
Where: Theatre Royal Stratford East
When: Until 11 October, T-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 15:00
How Much: Until 23 Sep: £12-20, From 23 Sep: £14-40
Concessions: £9-17, not good for onstage and front stalls table seats
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £17. It’s a good show, but not a great show.
RZ Other Notes: For the hubbub about the amateur dancers, they don’t do much (a bit of ballroom before the show and during the interval). Likewise, the much hyped onstage bar is obstructed from the left side of the circle - avoid if you want to watch Ray Davies watching the cast instead of patrons paying £40 to sit onstage watching the cast.