“Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night”
I was originally meant to see Flashdance -The Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre a couple of weeks ago but that first preview was cancelled due to technical difficulties, so when I finally made it to one of the last previews, my heart sank as we waited for the curtain to rise and the announcement came that the start of the afternoon’s show was being delayed due to, you’ve guessed it, technical difficulties! Having been outraged at the merchandising in the foyer (£60 for a special Barbie! £15 for a pair of legwarmers!) I was thus prepared with sharpened knives for what was coming my way. Perhaps my lowered expectations had something to do with then, but I ended up having quite a good time!
Based on the Paramount Pictures film, Flashdance – The Musical has a book by Tom Hedley & Robert Cary, music by Robbie Roth and lyrics by Robbie Roth and Robert Cary, but also features choreography from Arlene Phillips (who really does belong back on our screens at the weekend). Set in Pittsburgh in the 1980s, we meet Alex, apprentice steel welder by day, club dancer by night (who isn’t!) who dreams of love and life in dance school. Watching this reminded me of just how many times I have seen variations of this story played out in countless films, of someone fighting against the odds to, delete as appropriate, date a black guy/rise above working class roots/honour a dead relative/not be a stripper and get to the audition in time to wipe the smile off that smug auditioner’s face in order to secure a place at an amazing dance school for which they are eminently unsuitable. But I love each and every one of them, there’s nothing like a cheesy teen dance film to raise the spirits! And as Flashdance got in there at the beginning, it can consider itself mistress of the genre.
It was all rather good fun: it is clearly a film set in the 80s, there’s personal stereos, day-glo everywhere and a giant mobile phone but there’s also a very modern sensibility to it with street-dancing being incorporated into the very fabric of the show. I’m not sure how authentically 80s this is, but it doesn’t really matter as it infuses a huge energy into the production and one which doesn’t relent until the curtain comes down.
It’s very much a play of the film, but there have been some quite significant changes: the roles of Alex’s friends have been significantly beefed up and there’s no ice skating disappointingly, Alex’s mentor figure is replaced by her mother and the drug dealing element were the ones that stuck out to me, but there’s quite a few more too but they all seem to fit well into the retooled story. There’s five songs (at least as I remember) from the original film and all the other songs are originals, written especially for this show and by and large they are mostly efficient, if not hugely memorable when up against tunes like ‘Maniac’, ‘Gloria’, ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’ and the title track.
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the ever-wise-cracking Alex is rarely off the stage and manages very well: vocally very secure, confident with her dancing and does her best with the utter cheesefest that is the vast majority of her dialogue. There was one point where my heart went out to her as she was getting dressed whilst singing, she struggled to zip up her shorts, fasten her belt, get her boots on the right feet and then get her arms into the sleeves of her leather jacket, who hasn’t had mornings like that but at least we don’t have a theatre full of people watching our every move. This is something that needs to be worked on!
The delightfully monikered Twinnie Lee Moore as Jazmin is superb, her dancing was just excellent and she really seemed to be enjoying herself and vocally with Hannah Levane as Keisha delivered songs with a fierce vivacity which lit up the stage, their songs were probably the highlight of the show for me. Charlotte Harwood as Gloria the third member of this little group had a more difficult job with a bit of an uncertain character that didn’t fit too easily with the other two diva dancers and I felt a little too much hesitancy in her delivery throughout. Sarah Ingram’s mother is good but I found Matt Willis solid rather than amazing and is lumbered with a most random sequence where having been forced to fire people from t’mill, he then launches straight into a song with a gay disco beat, somewhat incongruous to say the least. The dance company seem well-drilled, many are given the opportunity to showcase their own styles too, most notably Robbie White, the contemporary dancer who made a huge splash on So You Think You Can Dance and probably would have won it had he not dislocated his shoulder.
Director Nikolai Foster clearly has a great eye for putting together the big sequences: the group dance routines are well mounted and I really loved the montages, especially the fast-forwarding through Alex and Nick’s first few dates, from the cinema to ballet to dinner which was so smoothly done despite incorporating so many elements. Visually it looked good with striking images like the silhouetted figures at the start of ‘Maniac’ impressing, but it was disappointing to see the iconic fall of water on Alex in her chair and subsequent hair flick (the image used to sell the play no less) getting about 0.5 seconds before the lights were cut at the end of Act 1.
But there’s also a slight sense of overkill with just how a fair amount of street dance is incorporated in a poorly integrated way: it is one thing to play to the strengths of your company but the use of little street-dance interludes in the scene changes was used too infrequently to be really effective. When the opening dancer who appears when the lights are still up, it is a nice touch and gets the audience hooked in but then he just disappears whilst the overture continues (presumably to take his place for the first number) and there’s an awkward moment until eventually the show starts. Likewise, the famous audition routine to the title song is somewhat taken over by the introduction of the dancers in the middle, ruining the drama of the moment, as they then have to go off stage whilst she gets the nod from the dance school teacher and then play the final scene. It is an energetic routine but would be better suited in the finale rather than as part of the actual show.
Having seen the set and the way it is staged, I am more inclined to be forgiving about the technical difficulties: it is quite a complex set with a large series of panels and backdrops and sets sliding in from all angles at repeated intervals and it all looks most impressive. Quite why they then decided to add in projections at random moments I do not know. Whether it was an animated version of Alex, abstract blobs of colours or a live video effect during one of the dance sequences, it just felt like a completely unnecessary and superfluous addition to the whole. And whilst I’m moaning, I’d get rid of the bicycle from the opening scene; I wasn’t keen on the way in which the track around the orchestra pit was constantly used, but to little effect: one scene had characters just going round in circles on it doing nothing.
I am aware that I have waffled on for ages here, but that is because I do believe there is a great show in the making here. There are still a few teething problems which can be sorted out by opening night and the cast need a little time to get to grips with the considerable changes that have apparently been happening over the last two weeks, but give them time and I think they’ll get there. My main note of advice would be that the cast need to learn to keep their game faces on: whether it was the aforementioned difficulties with getting dressed, head mikes coming loose, baseball caps falling off or sheets getting stuck to belts, too much attention was brought to them, faffing around or giggling, instead of focusing on just getting the job done. It’s easy for me to say, but at these ticket prices (even in the preview period), a certain professionalism should be a given.
But most importantly, I enjoyed myself at Flashdance: I don’t generally get to see much dance so I really liked the enhanced dance elements and this is definitely a production that feels like it is heading in the right direction. There’s lots of uncomplicated fun to be had here, some quality 80s tunes, some nifty dancing and I’d recommend getting yourself a ticket perhaps a little later in the run to give everything time to bed down properly.