Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15
Opened 24 September, 2008

Like the 1982 song which gives the show its title (and which is one of only three previously extant Kinks numbers included in the evening), Ray Davies’ musical is informed by nostalgia both general and particular. It looks back fondly at the culture of spending Saturday nights down the palais de danse in the late 1950s on the eve of the rock and roll revolution; specifically, it is infused with reminiscences of two of his older sisters. He even refers to the Wallers, on whom his story centres, as “my family” for the purposes of the evening.
For in addition to writing the music, lyrics and (with Paul Sirett) book of the show, Davies also appears as a narrator. He sets up the story of eighteen-year-old Julie’s first visits to Ilford Palais with her family under the watchful eye of MC and crooner “uncle” Frankie; her eagerness to dance but embarrassment at her limp, a legacy of childhood polio; her uneasy courtship by Borstal boy Tosher, and the aftermath of a ruckus on the dancefloor one night. Perhaps in acknowledgement of the diversity of Stratford East’s usual audience, the otherwise all-white cast and story also include a first-wave Jamaican immigrant sax player, for whom Julie falls, and a proto-soul singer.
The deficiencies of the show are part of its fabric. This is nostalgia of the sedate English kind so often evoked in song by Davies, not – to compare it with other Stratford musical hits of recent years – the calypsonian exuberance of The Big Life or the roots-reggae oomph of The Harder They Come. Although the design cleverly makes the stage feel like a continuation of the auditorium and performers mingle with us before each act begins, there is no danger of masses joining in in the excitement. The other major factor is Davies himself, who despite decades of experience both with The Kinks and solo has never been a natural showman, and seems almost defiantly wooden as The Storyteller. Gemma Salter gives Julie as much rebelliousness as a nice, not entirely healthy girl can muster, and Alasdair Harvey’s Frankie is all teeth and Brylcreem and no soul, as he should be; but, despite its shadows and its tears, Come Dancing never has the capacity to be more than a comfy evening.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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