These Riverdance folk mean business. Full-on, rhythmic business. Business of a kind that was thought to have become extinct along with progressive rock in the 1970s. There, for all to see, is the biggest, brashest collection of drum kit since Pink Floyd went to the Dark Side of the Moon. And there's no hiding it away in the pit. This is set up, bold as you like, on the front edge of the stage.
And what a rhythm cockpit it is. A place of frenetic beating and bashing of gongs, drums, cymbals and bells. A place for the duel percussionists to cajole and tease their instruments into quiet whisper, before thrashing out a powerful, rhythmic pulse.
Such a bamboozlement of equipment seems out of place in Riverdance, which is surely based on the idea that one person can create every single beat known to humanity simply by banging their shoes hard on the floor - while standing straight and tall and kicking their legs up a lot.
Placing the soloists above all others is, however, to get the current version of Riverdance completely wrong. The basic drive of this production is the collective experience of dance. Which is not to say that the lead dancers - Breandán de Gallaí and Sinéad McCafferty (replacing Joanne Doyle in the early shows of the run as she has pulled a calf muscle) -are not very good. In fact, they are so good that at times you can't believe their feet are actually making all those noises.
But in the first half, once you've managed to get past the condescending, cod paganism of the "plot" and the intrusive instrumental and vocal interludes to give time for costume changes, it's the ensemble work that really makes you gasp. Whatever your opinion of Irish dancing, the sight of a full line of dancers bashing their feet and kicking up their legs is thrilling.
And the second half delivers even more, with the Riverdance Tappers going head-to-head with three Irish Dancers, some superb modern Russian folk dancing with its insanely fast pirouettes and lifts, and some excellently fiery Flamenco. This is all exciting stuff and guaranteed to give aficionados of tap dancing, in all its myriad forms, plenty to look at. But while the actual performances are fine, the packaging leaves a lot to be desired.
- Thom Dibdin (reviewed at the Edinburgh Playhouse)
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from the show's 1997 run at London's Apollo Hammersmith.
Riverdance has become something of a phenomenon. What started out in 1994 as a single Irish dance interlude to the Eurovision Song Contest broadcast has evolved into a box-office smash staged in America, Australia, Canada, Scotland, Germany as well as Ireland and several sell-out runs in London.
When you enter the cavernous Labatt s Apollo in Hammersmith, it s clear you re in for a very unusual - even surreal - evening. And for a few surprises. Although Riverdance - The Show is billed as an Irish dance extravaganza, it s really much more than this. In addition to the Irish dance troupe, we re treated to some delicious tasters of Russian folk dancing, Spanish flamenco and American soft-shoed tap as well as some haunting choral singing.
For the most part, the disparate elements work well together. One of the most enjoyable numbers, if only for its sheer athleticism, is the dance-off between the three American tappers (Trading Taps) and their opposite number amongst the Irish immigrants. All of the dancing in fact is of an exceedingly high quality. The splendid choreography produces the most spectacular, kaleidoscopic displays from the Irish dancers. And when they come together, it is mesmering to watch and experience. Lines of dancers, legs flashing in perfect unison amongst a barrage of precise steps, clogs tapping simultaneously with thunderous result. Incredible!
While pleasant and well performed, the straight music and choral numbers can t help but disappoint in comparison. The on-stage band is certainly lively and they display a variety of interesting, Irish instruments that make the bagpipe look boring, but they re best utilised as accompaniment to the dance. Instrumental solos are not what people come for and only slow down the pace of the evening.
An even worse offence though is the attempt to superimpose a narrative on the action and turn a bloody good dance spectacular into, and I quote from the programme, “nothing less than the story of humankind”. As part of this effort, we re assaulted with an array of schmaltzy, back-projected images and frequent voice-overs in the style of educational films for 5-year-olds that seriously underestimate the intelligence of their audience.
If you don t completely gag at the mere thought of such hokum, persevere. This is Irish dancing at its best - a phenomenon not to be missed.
Terri Paddock, November 1997