Is there a more bizarre coupling on the London stage at the moment than the septuagenarian actress Claire Bloom and the shaven-headed Hollywood star of Titanic and Dead Calm, Billy Zane? The unlikely pair are brought together in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, the latest success story to wing its way across the pond following in the footsteps of Avenue Q, Wicked, Caroline, or Change and Spamalot.
The concept is simple: the prim old wife of a Baptist minister, Lily, hires a young, gay (gasp!) man, Michael, to give her dance lessons as she lives out her sunset days in her beach-front Florida condo. Never was a title more literally interpreted - each of the six dance lessons (swing, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha and contemporary) is heralded by its particular musical theme before the scene settles into a comfy routine. First, the "passive aggressive queen" and the "tight-ass, nosey old biddy" have an argument, which segues into an emotional revelation from one or both sides before they have a reconciliation through dance, which is then interrupted, comically, by a phone call from the batty neighbour, Ida, before the scene ends with a dancing flourish.
Ah yes, the dancing. The involvement of the choreographer Craig Revel Horwood, known to millions of television viewers as the Simon Cowell of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing, has been much trumpeted. But his fellow judges, who were out in force on the opening night, and anyone else who comes along expecting to see some fancy footwork, will be sorely disappointed. It's more like six minutes of dancing, and not very impressive dancing at that, crammed in as it is among Lily's cane furniture, although the interminable scene changes at least do a good job of helping us to imagine the week that elapses between lessons.
As the tuition goes on, Lily and Michael develop an unlikely, strong bond, with Lily transforming from a prim, nervous figure in a pink tweed suit and pearls to a vivacious woman not afraid of the odd profanity, while the apparently chirpy Michael opens up about his failed relationships and tragedy-tinged past.
During one of their arguments Michael demands of Lily, "didn't we develop a rapport?" Not from where I was sitting, unfortunately. It's mainly the fault of Richard Alfieri's formulaic script, but not entirely. Bloom, who has famously played Cordelia to Gielgud's Lear, Ophelia to Burton's Hamlet and Lady Anne to Olivier's Richard III, is now 75 and sadly it shows. Her verve is astonishing and she still wears a va-va-voom dress with style, but her voice is strained and her American accent wobbles from Southern Belle to RP in the space of a single word.
Zane, on the other hand, is a chunkily affable presence - nicely, but not overly camp, gamely putting Bloom through her paces with gentle good humour. There's a nice moment when Bloom purrs with pleasure as Zane tells her how special she is, but it's a young man indulging an old woman's folly in more ways than one.
Michael is given a good run of bitchy one-liners ("only my ass can hear you now", as he minces out of the door) and Lily's accusation that Michael is still "in the pantry" is touching, but the reliance on alternately heart-wringing/ warming Chicken Soup for the Soul-type tropes render Alfieri's play nothing more than a predictable, fluffy, weepy confection of clichés.
Strictly Come Dancing might have captured the public's imagination with its concept of good old-fashioned entertainment, but connecting this production to its success is marketing hokum of the highest order. OK, so it's a pretty harmless and quaint night out for the blue-rinse brigade, but why anyone would spend up to £45 for this Dirty Dancing on HRT is a mystery when the real thing is just round the corner. In the last six months the stakes have been raised for West End theatre and Six Dance Lessons frankly can't keep step.
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