Ballroom, Playhouse, Oxford

Dancing into the sunset
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The Independent Culture

A play with dancing by John Retallack, Ballroom takes you in its firm-but-gentle embrace and spins you off into the strange sunset world of the seaside tea dance. Co-directed by its author and its choreographer, Jack Murphy, the show is beautifully alert to what is touching and absurd, humorous and haunting about these occasions, the way they manage to be both a sedate singles party for the over-seventies and an inspiring expression of a refusal to let old age turn you into one of life's wallflowers.

A play with dancing by John Retallack, Ballroom takes you in its firm-but-gentle embrace and spins you off into the strange sunset world of the seaside tea dance. Co-directed by its author and its choreographer, Jack Murphy, the show is beautifully alert to what is touching and absurd, humorous and haunting about these occasions, the way they manage to be both a sedate singles party for the over-seventies and an inspiring expression of a refusal to let old age turn you into one of life's wallflowers.

Here, four elderly first-timers - all recently bereaved and all keen on dancing - sit in awkward solitude and defensive reserve. Instead of socialising, each of them reflects on his or her lifelong marriage, and, as they do so, the past and the present start to share the same space. In the dreamy swirl of glitterball light, the foursome's silent younger selves (portrayed by professional dancers) waft on and re-enact the rumbas, foxtrots, tangos and quicksteps of their heyday.

Only gradually do the widowed folk gravitate toward each other, playfully pushed and manhandled into less guarded behaviour on the dancefloor by the youthful revenants. This bittersweet sense of spectral partnering across the generations, and of hard-won communication between lonely oldsters, builds to a peak of poignant pleasure when the entire company performs an irresistibly impish routine to Dean Martin's "Cha Cha Cha d'Amour". It's funny. It's sad. It's an elating symbol of how differences of age and temperament can be fleetingly dissolved in dance.

True, the piece sometimes falls into patterns that are too neat, and when the pairs finally get talking, they have to divest themselves of an inordinate number of personal confidences for an initial encounter. But though it's full of warmth and sympathy, the show does not trade in the distortions of sentimentality. From likeably genteel Audrey, you might get the impression that being a good dancer is tantamount to being a good lover: both partnerhips require an almost psychic sensual rapport and responsiveness. She experienced the erotic ecstasy of totally merged being only once, and it was not with her husband, Graham, who even during their wedding waltz made her feel more like a wheelbarrow than a woman. Modifying this view, though, we have the experience of Linda Broughton's emphatic, Northern Sylvia. She and Pierre, her husband of 48 years, made a prize-winning, perfectionist combo. The only trouble was that he was gay and the marriage entirely sexless: "We confused love and dancing."

Will Audrey have better luck with Graham Bill's bulky, gentle Victor, who adored his wife to such a suffocating degree that she has to plead with him from beyond the grave to release her from his posthumous possessiveness? Will Sylvia click with Roy (Gilbert Wynne), a former actor and smoothly smiling ladies' man who once had a confusing twinge of gay desire while rehearsing a tango in the arms of a male choreographer? The show leaves them poised for change, knowing that they have to take steps in more senses than one and reflecting that where there's life, there's hope, and where there's dancing, there's life.

Transferring to the Riverside Studios, London W6, from tomorrow to 22 August (020-8237 1111)

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