Review: Dirty Dancing, Aldwych Theatre

Much of the trumpeting around the arrival of the stage adaptation of the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing has been around its sensational advance box office takings, apparently the biggest in West End history. The film obviously holds a strong cachet amongst the 30-somethings who flocked to the cinema first time round, but I only hope that they emerge from the Aldwych theatre less appalled and dumb-founded than I that this has made it to the West End.

For those who aren’t aware, Dirty Dancing is a coming-of-age story, following the 17 year old Baby Houseman who is spending a family holiday in 1963 at a Butlins-type resort in upstate New York. She discovers love in the staff quarters there, her eye being particularly caught by the muscle-bound dance teacher Johnny.

The brief clearly seems to have been replicate the film in every way possible, but in doing so so slavishly, they have wrung out almost all the passion and interest from the story and really failed to capitalise on what a stage interpretation could have offered. There’s much use of projections and film to replicate location after location instead of relocating scenes to a smaller number of manageable places which could have been effectively staged.

For a play about dancing, there just isn’t enough actual dancing! The sequences where Baby is taught to dance form the meat of the show and consequently drag on for far too long. Partly this is due to the story, but the opportunity existed to play with the film’s screenplay, to amend or add scenes that further show the vitality of dancing rather than the dullness of learning to dance and it is one that has been thoroughly missed here. Likewise, for a musical, there’s precious little singing and some of the best known and loved numbers aren’t even sung, just piped out.

Josef Brown in the Patrick Swayze role of Johnny has the buff body and the moves but zero charisma and stage presence; Georgina Rich fails to make much of an impression in the thankless role of Baby and Isabella Calthorpe as her sister seems to have wandered in from a pantomime; only Nadia Cotte as Penny stood out for me, as one of the few characters allowed to exude the sensuality and sexuality for which dancing in a (barely disguised) metaphor in this story.

I genuinely cannot see where the attraction in this production of Dirty Dancing lies. Fans of musical theatre will be sorely disappointed at the lack of singing, fans of dancing will be unimpressed at what is on display here, and ultimately fans of the film can just put their copies of the dvd on and save themselves a whole load of money. With an extremely badly behaved audience making the experience even more intolerable, I was desperate to leave in the interval and had to be seriously convinced to stay til the end. I rather suspect that little of what I say or any critic will affect the success of this show but seriously, just don’t bother.

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