In a programme note, writer Tom Hedley recounts how Bob Fosse turned down the invitation to make his 1985 Flashdance movie (British director Adrian Lyne took up the challenge) with the suggestion that Hedley’s script, with work, “might make a hell of a Broadway show.”
Well, Hedley may be half way there with this invigorating London premiere, which has transformed an okay movie with a few songs into a pulsating dance show with fourteen new numbers, a tougher narrative, and a well sustained metaphor of the Pittsburgh steel mill as a glorified dance floor.
Above all, there is a wonderful central performance by unknown Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Alex the welder that proclaims a new star is born. Nikolai Foster’s production, designed by Morgan Large, is both exciting and stunningly efficient, with plenty of grime and welders’ sparks, sliding factory doors and brilliant choreography by Arlene Phillips.
Alex’s drive to go to ballet school becomes a lesser motivation than her wider campaign for loving recognition of what she does best. Buttressed by the attention of the boss’s nephew at work (Matt Willis) and the well-meaning interference of her mother (Sarah Ingram) in the dry-cleaners, Alex cuts a swathe through seedy clubs and MTV and underworld diversions with her girlfriends to that ultimate make or break audition.
On the way, Phillips’ hand-picked dancers burn up the stage in a series of corporate body-popping moves and modern jazz and dance sequences that summarise her work from Hot Gossip right through Matador and Grease to Starlight Express and beyond; it’s a fantastic way of forging a link between the factory and the footlights and, for my money, totally eclipses the two “urban” musicals Flashdance prophesies, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot.
The nightmare ballet, too, is a throwback to the Hollywood “dream” sequences of the 1940s, but is fully integrated with the storyline and the new robotic, diagrammatic dance styles. The new songs by Robbie Roth and Robert Cary include a few good ballads and maintain the steely, heavy metal edge, while the old favourites – “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, “Maniac,” “Gloria” and “What a Feeling” – speak directly to an audience primed on the movie and The X-Factor.
So, this is definitely 1980s retro, a phase we’re going through, whether you like it or not. But the cleverness of Flashdance the musical is to make considerable theatrical virtue out of what might easily have looked tacky and derivative. The show’s fresh as masonry paint, a full-on power blast, striking sparks, and industrial action, in all directions.