[Review:] DIRTY DANCING, Dominion Theatre, London.
I found this performance very shallow…
It feels as though the creatives simply needed a surefire way to obtain some money. Appropriating the well-known ‘classic’ film, Dirty Dancing, and upon it basing a purely sensationalist text to garner interest, hype and engagement, it seems, was the perfect means of doing this. This performance aims to titillate and arouse its audience, to prey upon fond memory through its vapid representationalism, and to instrumentalise physiological and emotional responses, all solely for shallow gain. For the reasons I will enumerate below, this remains a performance of low artistic integrity, a quick-release, low-effort play with songs, not a work of art by any stretch of the imagination. A completely superficial performance, substituting profundity and artistic creativity for frivolous cliché and caricature.
I shall start with the writing (by Eleanor Bergstein). Plot elements seem to be rather brushed over, in favour of the humorous or the voyeuristic — I think to most scenes with Neil (Thomas Sutcliffe) wherein he attempts to woo Baby (Kira Malou) with his status and resources but is undone by his caricatural nerdy and goofy disposition, or, indeed, the hypersexual scenes between Baby and Johnny (Michael O'Reilly) themselves. The setup of the main plot itself, for example, where Baby is nominated to perform in the final dance and her lessons with Johnny are organised, is practically nonexistent — she is asked, she accepts, and we move on to the repetitive and provocative dance lessons that follow. During these lessons and throughout the entire performance, we see no palpable development in the relationship between Baby and Johnny beyond incessant physical touch, and our understanding of all of the characters and settings, beyond perhaps Neil and Johnny, is reliant on our pre-existing understanding of the film and its contexts. I think, for example, to the introduction of Millers itself. We are told that this is where the amazing dancing happens...and nothing else. We must guess the rest of its significance ourselves.
What is so important about this location that should draw Baby so magnetically? Why should she care for poor pregnant Penny (Carlie Milner) and these people she has barely met, enough to ask her father to spare her £250 to give to them? We are provided with no understanding of Baby's character, intents and psychology. We are simply to accept these items as organic to the narrative. Even the reason as to why Johnny feels so deeply connected with Baby over the mere fact that she fought for him not to be fired is underexplained — would a singular act like this really change his entire perception of women and how they might use and abuse him? What are we made to understand about Baby that would force us to believe along with Johnny that her love for him is genuine, powerful, authentic? A few giggles at the touch of his ripped abs and a poorly executed practice dance together are not enough to validate their trust and relationship, I am afraid.
As for the dancing itself, the crux of this performance, I remain rather underwhelmed again. Form and precision are certainly lacking across the cast, and whilst all physical motions are certainly carried through, conviction and impetus are consistently insufficient. It feels almost as though the cast are to some degree conserving their energy throughout the performance — perhaps for the post-show finale, which sees vastly improved and impressive skill [albeit too late], much to my surprise. Choreography, overall, is highly repetitive, and this is particularly true of the opening sequence. What I did find most energised and skilful, however, was the choreography of the first scene wherein we are introduced to the dancers at Millers. Choreography here is varied and expressive, and the topographical organisation of the dancers is splendid, balanced and attractive.
To end this section, I should mention that I would certainly restrict the number of lifts background dancers perform, given that this is the most memorable aspect of the choreography in the film — which is clearly important, given the aforementioned representationalist nature of this performance. Either restrict them or make them less pedestrian: showcase and highlight deliberately what the other characters can do that Baby as of yet cannot, to intensify the intense work that she must endure. I rather wish that all cast members demonstrated the same technical awareness as Lizzie Ottley (playing Lisa) and Tito Suarez do consistently, and as Milner does, too, at times.
Perhaps the tackiest aspect of this performance is the log-walking scene, seeing the re-inclusion of the initial drop with a captioned depiction of 'Mountain Lake Lodge' — which, I emphasise, should not be used as an opening curtain and a scenic backdrop, for this leads to semiotic confusion and destruction of illusion. This depiction, printed on the gauze part of the drop, acts as a frame through which to view the actors as they pretend to balance on the log. Whilst the log itself is cleverly conceived, a lack of corporeal expressivity, the unnatural lighting, and the far-too-thick gauze that obscures them too heavily make this scenelet rather dissatisfying. With this drop now functioning as an act drop, the gauze is again made opaque, and we are made to wait what should be a matter of seconds for the next scenelet to begin. However, it takes an atrocious amount of time for the next set to be assembled. Deciding to keep count some time into this waiting, I counted the passing of fifteen seconds, which is a lifetime in theatre, especially if only to be offered such a short-lived scenelet as the one that follows. Sound effects (sound design by Armando Vertullo) here, though authentically designed, are also ill-timed. It is such uncareful and imprecise aspects like these that lead me to this aforementioned sentiment that this is a slapdash quest for money and renown, as opposed to a thoughtful, intellectual and creative work of art.
Whilst on this topic again, I shall consider briefly this voyeuristic aspect. From O'Reilly appearing with one less piece of clothing with his every entrance towards the middle of the first act, to the motif of dancing shirtless men, to the cast members bending over, away from the audience, to present their skimpily clad bottoms, and to the deliberate display of O'Reilly's unclad derrière, this is notably an erotic performance intended almost entirely for the androphilic gaze — and there is nothing ‘wrong’ with this, in essence. However, I find it most peculiar that immediately before presenting his nude buttocks, Johnny expresses his discomfort with women sexually objectifying him and using him for their sexual gratification. Yet, this subsequent cheeky act is a deliberately and encouragingly erotic one that permits and condones the act of voyeurism. His character is also allowed hereafter to be just as sexualised as before he revealed this fact to us.
This lack of sincerity in line with Johnny's expression really allows for the sense that the creatives wanted to throw in this half-baked political message merely to add depth and feeling to Johnny’s character, to be merely representative of this development familiar to the film, and to give the illusion that their play itself has some sociopolitical focus and integrity. What it does, instead, however, is simply expose its exploitation of cliché passions and its ignorance towards the very sociopolitical themes that it pretends to advocate. This political type is simply instrumentalised for the skeletal development of plot and of character; it soon comes to mean nothing with the further excuses to prompt the audience to be insatiable sexual voyeurs. Prompting the audience to get up and dance, both early into the second act and during the finale, it is no surprise that emotional physiological responses are also instrumentalised in a similar way for mere sensationalist purposes.
Acting. Whilst, as I have mentioned above, technical dancing skill is very limited across the cast, energy is notably faultless throughout. Each performer, with emphasis on O'Reilly and Sutcliffe, portrays their representational and caricatural profile well, though Milner performs her role with refreshing credibility, overall, I must add. In summary, the performers adapt to their roles well and capture excellently the vision of the writer and director, but the roles themselves are superficial and hampered, and thus, by extension, so is the representational acting.
Set and tech. Whilst washes are certainly beautiful, leaning into a finely established aesthetic, spotlights remain a constant issue throughout with Valerio Tiberi's design. Even when performers are generally still, such as with Ottley during her quirky and precise rendition of 'Hula Hana', spotlights fail to stay in place, constantly shaking and struggling to focus on their subjects. Set design, though minimalist, is sufficient in demonstrating the locations of the characters' houses, the restaurant and Millers, but interstitial scenes are incredibly visually neglected. I should also mention that assembling the restaurant set seems, again, to be too great a feat for stagehands. Costumes (designed by Jennifer Irwin) lack variety but are well designed in themselves, but wigs are simply awful, overly artificial and plastic-looking. Props usage is inconsistent: they are overused in places — the restaurant scene, Jake (Lynden Edwards) and Marjorie's (Lori Haley Fox) golf sessions, Penny's filled fridge, etc. — and underused in others — the dance lessons, scenes taking place at Millers.
Some final, pedantic notes referring to moments that together destroy illusion and complicate style, aesthetic, significance and structure. It should be decided whether or not we can see ensemble members grouped tougher, talking, dancing, etc., when we are supposedly in an enclosed setting from which we cannot observe them: from inside Penny’s house, for example. At times, ensemble members stay completely still, aiming not to draw attention to their gatherings; at others, they perform their actions slowly, stylistically; and at others, they continue dancing and chatting in mime as though performing a regular background scene. This must be addressed for the purpose of stylistic consistency. When Malou changes her costume, she must do so only once she has left the stage, not whilst in immediate view of the audience as she is running off Stage Right, to save herself some time. When characters are briefly commentating on the rest of the action on stage — the dances, for example — the speaking actors' physical activity must be increased, and a spotlight must light them well; otherwise, as is the case for this performance, the audience will have no idea where to look or, more extremely, which characters are even talking, especially early on in the performance. I must note that this is also true of the first restaurant scene in which all actors slow down as a blue wash takes hold of the stage and mutes their visibility. I have absolutely no idea what happened in this moment, for my eye had nowhere to rest across this flat visual, and because of the sheer lack of movement. I can only deduce that whatever happened at the table between these characters was needless to note, regardless.