For anyone with one foot in the past, here’s a toe-tapping night in the theatre that rewinds you back to the good old bad old days of the 1950s Ilford Palais – decades before ballroom dancing had Strictly attached to it – and reminds you of a time when entire East End families would go out together for a Saturday night glide at the local ballroom.
Adapted by The Kinks' lugubrious frontman Ray Davies from his own song “Come Dancing” (with book collaborator Paul Sirett), this powerfully nostalgic musical could so easily have become a vanity project. After all, too many venerable rock and pop acts have reworked their back-catalogues for the stage, with varying degrees of success. Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You and Jersey Boys may well be top of the jukebox musical pops, but who, apart from Gerry Marsden and the Pacemakers themselves, remembers the clapped-out compilation cruddiness of Ferry Cross the Mersey?
Davies, however, was always far too astute to just get someone to string together Kinks classics like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Lola” and call it a musical. Apart from its Ska-based bounce, “Come Dancing”, written in 1982, contains Davies’ most autobiographical lyric, in which he looks back – in typical wistful Kinksian style – on childhood memories of his big sisters’ Saturday night forays to the Palais with their sexually frustrated boyfriends (“And all for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek”).
Inspired by his own vignette of a lost working-class lifestyle, for Come Dancing, Davies has assembled at least a dozen new songs, remixed a couple of his oldies (including “Tired of Waiting”) and come up with a compelling tragi-comic story with a central character, Julie (Gemma Salter), loosely based on one of his sisters who actually died in a dance hall from a heart condition.
Looking like a crinkled old rocker in a blue suit, Davies himself appears on stage as the Storyteller, to explain why “Come Dancing” still doesn’t quite feel finished, and then quicksteps us back to the night innocent teenage Julie entered the world of the (now demolished) Ilford Palais for the first time, only to discover true love, some horrible home truths and a double tragedy beneath the glitterball.
Davies says he workshopped the show ten years ago at the National Theatre, although it was never staged because apparently it wasn’t posh enough. Kerry Michael’s new production injects populist appeal by connecting the auditorium with an onstage ballroom complete with live band, a bar and dancing couples, where the large cast bring to life a cross-section of a post-war cockney community on the verge of extinction.
You can almost smell the cheap fags, warm beer, Brylcreem and cheap scent. The boys in their Burton suits and the girls sipping Babycham and dolled up like Doris Day (or a perhaps Diana Dors if they were a bit common) all look as if they’ve just landed from the Fifties section of retro heaven. And the ensemble company do well to capture the hopes and fears of a community undergoing change, when it wasn’t just about switching from big band music to rock ‘n’ roll at the Palais but also aspiring to a better life in a new town like Stevenage.
Some characters seem underdeveloped and maybe the drama of the piece is a tad like A Slice of Saturday Night and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be meet Absolute Beginners, especially when Jamaican saxophonist Hamilton (a delightful Delroy Atkinson) arrives to remind us yet again of how racism was rife amongst white working class communities. But there’s something quite charming – and spooky – about the way that Davies and the cast seem to channel the long-dead era of the Palais de Dance. So after they’ve launched into the “Come Dancing” finale, expect to go dancing all the way home. As the songs says, “It’s only natural”.
- Roger Foss