Review: Ballroom (Waterloo East Theatre)

The European premiere of Jerome Kass, Billy Goldenberg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s Broadway musical

In 1978 Broadway director-choreographer Michael Bennett followed up his phenomenally successful A Chorus Line with this sweet but uneven confection. Based on a long forgotten TV film, Ballroom was notable mainly for the speed with which it closed, losing its entire investment, and the 11 o'clock number "Fifty Percent", a rueful but defiant statement by the middle aged heroine of her intention to continue her relationship with a married man, which has become a cabaret standard.

If Gerald Armin's small scale European premiere doesn't exactly make a case for Ballroom as a lost Broadway classic, it is nonetheless an agreeable evening's entertainment. The main reason for this is a supremely classy central performance from Jessica Martin as Bea, the Bronx widow whose life is enriched by regular visits to the Stardust Ballroom (the evocatively seedy set is by Paul O'Shaughnessy) and the romance she embarks upon with married mailman Alf (beautifully played by Cory Peterson). Martin is a winning presence, conveying Bea's loneliness blossoming heartwarmingly into a new assurance and optimism, and she sings up a storm. Her magnificent rendition of the "big number" rightfully brings the house down.

There isn't much plot beyond what I've described and the story doesn't really reach any satisfactory conclusion, it just sort of stops. Nonetheless Jerome Kass's book contains some nicely tart one liners which are divided up amongst the gallery of senior citizens who haunt the ballroom, and the two hours pass pleasantly, if blandly, enough.

Other than Follies and 70 Girls 70, it is hard to think of another musical that fields such a mature cast as this one, and it is a considerable pleasure watching some of these veterans doing their thing, especially Olivia Maffett, doubling hilariously as Bea's bitterly censorious sister-in-law and a particularly hapless Stardust regular ("if anybody finds an earring on the floor, it's mine!"), and Colette Kelly, very cute as the ancient Shirley, just out of a near-death hospital stay and straight back onto the dancefloor. Natalie Moore-Williams is great fun as Bea's sassy, mouthy best mate although she reads as decades too young compared to much of the rest of the company.

Nancy Kettle's authentic-looking choreography occasionally throws up real – and lovely – surprises as the cast swirl and glide by, and there is a wonderfully naff disco-inspired number (this IS the '70s after all) that gets a huge response. The score is entirely serviceable but, with the exception of "Fifty Percent", also entirely unmemorable, Alan and Marilyn Bergman's concise lyrics proving superior to Billy Goldenberg's music, which sounds mostly like Kander & Ebb-lite.

Frankly, this gently charming show is unlikely to be seen on a London stage for the foreseeable future so for collectors of showbiz curiosities it is undoubtedly worth a look. It won't knock your dancing shoes off but neither will it have you rushing for the exit at the interval.

Ballroom runs at Waterloo East Theatre until 4 June.