Claire Bloom and Billy Zane star in the UK premiere of Richard Alfieri’s American comedy Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, which opened last night at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket (29 November 2006 following previews from 23 November, See News, 9 Oct 2006) to less than enthusiastic reviews.

The play, which follows the unlikely acquaintance between a sprightly retiree and her young dance teacher, is directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, who also directed the 2001 Los Angeles production, and designed by Christopher Woods. It’s presented by TRH Productions and EntPro Plays Inc.

The majority of overnight critics found the play far too “sickly sweet” and were unconvinced by the script, set, choreography and performances in the production, which some said should never have made it into the West End. However, one reviewer saw the light at the end of the tango…

  • Michael Coveney on (1 star) – “What is this strange concoction doing in the West End? The cry goes up for good new plays to counteract the musicals boom but this won’t help anyone’s cause. Richard Alfieri’s feeble dance lesson scenario is simply bereft of magic, even though Christopher Woods has designed a pleasant vista across the Florida beach from the well-appointed condominium. We’ve had Dirty Dancing. Here comes the sanitized, hot milk and honey version for old folks. Or at least it seems so in the drab performance of Claire Bloom… if not in the accomplished, suavely attractive performance of Billy Zane…. Alfieri’s play has – astonishingly – been seen all around the world without anyone ever having heard of it. Now we know why.... One loses the will to live…. The dances are staged by Craig Revel Horwood who fully deserves some of the low level insults he dishes out to hapless television contestants on Strictly Come Dancing each week.”

  • Sheridan Morley in the Daily Express – “It is mercifully not often that you get to see a play in the West End as remorselessly terrible…. And what is so sad, so wasteful, about this misbegotten shambles… is that Bloom only makes stage appearances roughly once a decade and we need therefore to see her at her considerably poignant best rather than, as here, looking deeply and understandably embarrassed in a role which would have defeated Elaine Stritch and all of the Golden Girls combined…. Billy Zane… is equally miscast, a butch cowboy floundering around the appalling dialogue where what’s needed is someone infinitely lighter and quicker on their feet…. we are left staring in open-mouthed astonishment at a train wreck of an evening, wondering how any of those involved got as far as a first rehearsal, let alone a first night…. The only moment of real drama in the entire evening, which runs two hours and seems like a lifetime, is when at the last Christopher Woods’ set flies away to reveal the Florida night skyline and you suddenly ache to be on that moonlit beach, just as long as the local theatre isn’t playing Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.”

  • Sam Marlowe in the Times (1 star) – Marlowe was similarly unimpressed with the “bland, mawkish play.” She said: “It’s nauseatingly obvious that these two lonely souls are going to melt one another’s hearts and forge an oh-so-special bond of friendship. And so it proves in the… predictable scenes that follow, each one repeating the pattern: a mild clash of temperaments, a little soul-baring, some light flirting and finally a few minutes of awkward tango, waltz or foxtrot among Lily’s wicker furniture. There’s the odd revelation or telephone call from an irascible neighbour by way of punctuation, but otherwise the monotony is unbroken. Seidelman’s production is too clumsy, and the play too mechanical and sentimentally manipulative to be touching…. There’s even a climactic sunset to underline the encroaching sense of Lily’s mortality; it’s garish and like everything else here, it doesn’t look remotely real…. They are working appreciably hard at generating some odd-couple chemistry; but the effort involved is all too obvious. Yet how could it be otherwise when Alfieri’s lame writing gives them so little to work with? This play is tooth-rottingly sweet right through to its sickly soft centre. And whatever steps Zane and Bloom essay, it, and the production, remain irretrievably flatfooted.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – Only de Jongh found the “escapist sentimentality” of the story sppealing – largely thanks to Bloom’s performance: “The imperishably beautiful Claire Bloom, who wears her 75 years as if she has tossed the last 20 of them aside, does not rush to mind as suitable casting… in this madly popular, rather soppy, romantic comedy…. Miss Bloom's answer to the problem of her miscasting turns out to be simple and poignant: she breaks Alfieri's implausible thematic frame-work and turns Lily into a dream-struck fantasist, without any strong American accent…. In Alfieri's basic, strange, fairy tale the revelations of how much the pair have lied about themselves come thick, fast and not very surprising. There is more to both of these vulnerable, lonely people than meets the undazzled eye, yet Alfieri never makes their meeting and association much more than a tear-jerking, comic encounter. Arthur Allan Seidelman's awkward production, with its over-long pauses between scenes, does not provide fortifying help either. The film-starry, handsome Zane… makes a surprisingly impressive, far from camp and entirely confident Minetti…. Light on his toes, tart and loose with his words and witty putdowns, quick to lose his temper in a volley of expletives and then quickly recover it, Zane sensibly tones down Michael's notes of self-pity. Miss Bloom's sympathising Lily, rather too declamatory at times I fancy, behaves as if Minetti has lent her a romantic life-line. The unbelievable sunset finale, as the couple dance together, with Michael apparently set to become Lily's carer, resolves their relationship in a gush of escapist sentimentality that I fear I found quite irresistible.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell