Regional theatre review: Dirty Dancing

Date Posted: 25/04/2017

Time of my life dance number

An outdated show that’s clinging on to life, or a timeless and ever-popular classic that still has its place in 2017? Rachel Bailey shares her thoughts on the new UK tour of Dirty Dancing.

You should be aware before you read this that I’ve never seen Dirty Dancing; not the original and much-loved 1987 film, or any of the previous theatre productions. But theatre-lover that I am, I figured I was guaranteed to at least enjoy myself, no matter how clichéd or outdated the production might be.

The storyline sounded appealing. 17 year old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman takes a family holiday to New York’s Catskill Mountains and falls in love with a sexy and misunderstood member of staff called Johnny Castle, who teaches her how to dance.

Plus, themes of race and gender, family and class are put to a soundtrack of 35 great songs, including Hungry Eyes, Hey Baby and Do You Love Me? The perfect theatre package, you might think.

However, there was part of me, before going into Milton Keynes Theatre, that thought: I’ve never made the effort to see the film, so will I be bothered about it on stage?

The answer, unfortunately, is no.

The reasons for this are multiple, starting with the pacing of the plot, which leaves little room for any sort of connection with the characters, through to clumsy scene transitions that left the audience with just a black theatre screen to stare at for moments at a time.

Baby and Johnny, Dirty Dancing

Pictured: Katie Hartland as Baby and Lewis Griffiths as Johnny in Dirty Dancing.

I felt real pressure prior to seeing Dirty Dancing to embrace the cult-like fandom that’s followed it since its beginning. I may not be overly familiar with the show as a whole, but I am aware of the iconic lake scene where Baby and Johnny are practising their dance lifts, and the famous line: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”.

So I suppose my expectations were high, perhaps more so than with other shows I’ve seen. These famous scenes were fine, but they didn’t pack the punch I was anticipating.

That’s not to say there aren’t some good bits. Dirty Dancing is above all a dance-based production. The title says it for you, I suppose, and do note the word ‘dirty’ – if you’re prudish, this might not be the best show for you. Scenes of a sexual nature are to be expected, via raunchy dance numbers and one particular bare bottom belonging to Lewis Griffiths as Johnny. How the audience howled at that.

The dancing is by far the most commendable thing about the production. Griffiths, with Carlie Milner in the role of fellow resort dancer, Penny, are the shining stars of this show, and their opening numbers are magnetic to watch. Sadly, due to the plot revolving around Penny finding herself with an unwanted pregnancy that puts her out of action, Milner’s dance appearances are seldom.

Johnny and Penny

Pictured: Carlie Milner in the role of Penny, with Griffiths as Johnny.

The audience seemed pleased with the progress of Baby (played by Katie Hartland), stepping into Penny’s shoes – but I wanted more fascinating dances, more fancy steps, more Strictly, I suppose – not two hours of waiting for Baby to ‘find herself’ and suddenly just ‘be’ an amazing dancer. Perhaps the show’s pacing has to do with this though. As mentioned, I feel like my relationship with all the characters was paper thin. I just didn’t care about what happened to them (sorry).

Walking out the theatre, however, I felt like the only person with negative comments to make. The audience was in high spirits throughout the show, going as far as wolf-whistling as some of the male dance members took their shirts off, and screaming with joy when Baby and Johnny executed the perfect dance lift in the final scenes.

In a way, I felt almost left out – why wasn’t I part of this Dirty Dancing club? What was I just not getting? Perhaps I should have made time to watch the film first, although I’m of the belief that any remade or adapted show should be able to standalone without relying on its audience being familiar with the original.

As shows go, it ticks all the boxes: an interesting set, some great dance numbers, believable acting, and a spirit-lifting finale with a great closing ensemble number.

But in my opinion, it’s nothing particularly special, and honestly? I’d probably advise people who aren’t already Dirty Dancing fans to consider an alternative.

Dirty Dancing is touring UK venues until 23rd September, when it will close at the Liverpool Merseyside Theatre. For further information visit www.dirtydancingontour.com.

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