Edinburgh review: Arlene! The Glitz! The Glamour! The Gossip! (Assembly Checkpoint)

Arlene Phillips’ bio-show is saved by the choreographer’s gift for storytelling

Arlene Phillips
Arlene Phillips
© Nicky Jonston

For once, this is a show whose title merited more exclamation marks, not fewer. The Glitz! The Glamour! The Gossip! The monotony! The repetitiousness! The navel-gazing!

Celebrity bio-shows can so easily turn into orgies of self-congratulatory back-slapping, like This Is Your Life on speed. There’s plenty of that on display in this Arlene Phillips show, principally from hostess Jacquie Storey, who auditioned for Arlene in the 1970s, and turned down a place in her Hot Gossip group. They’re clearly friends, and while there’s nothing wrong with the relentlessly affectionate tone she strikes, too often it slips over into slightly sickly adulation, climaxing in her assertion that "if it was up to me I would make you a dame". Pass me the bucket! Furthermore, they don’t have a clue how to end the show, as will become apparent when you get to the final moments.

What gives this 75-minutes salvation is that Phillips has had an interesting life, and I spent much of it thinking, "Wow; she did that too?" She has choreographed films like Annie, Highlander and Tom Cruise’s Legend, as well as hit West End musicals like Starlight Express, Grease and We Will Rock You, not to mention umpteen commercials and pop videos, clips of which appear on cue on a big screen at the back.

That means she has picked up a fair few tales to tell en route, and the show is at its best when she just gets on and tells them. It’s fun listening to how Donna Summer bought a new pair of high heels every day, or how Whitney Houston thought her feet were too big. Aretha Franklin is agoraphobic (who knew?!) and Freddie Mercury once took a dancer to hospital after damaging her head during filming in Canary Wharf.

Phillips is a gifted storyteller, and she opens up about her own life very effectively. It’s the details that often work best, such as the green ballet shoes that she started off with (they couldn’t afford the pink ones), and the way she met her partner through that Freddie Mercury incident. She talks about her first trip to the Dance Centre in London ("like Dick Whittington") and how she ended up as an au pair for Ridley Scott. She doesn’t say much about the thing we most wanted to hear about, however: namely her replacement on Strictly Come Dancing, something the audience noticeably homed in on when it came up. I got the strong impression it’s still pretty raw for her, despite her evident ability to move on, and it’s a credit to her that in spite of that she could still talk so warmly about the things that made Strictly a success.

Ultimately, however, this show is so much about La Phillips that it’s for paid-up Arlene fans only, and you won’t find out much about the world of dance beyond her life. The clue, after all, is in the name, and what you get out of it is exactly what you might expect.

Arlene! The Glitz! The Glamour! The Gossip! runs at Assembly Checkpoint until 26 August, then tours the UK.

Buy tickets for the show on tour