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Dirty Dancing

Posted on October 1, 2010

please_use_meSome cinematic moments are indelibly printed on the collective conscience. For a generation of thirtysomething women, the moment a leather-jacketed Patrick Swayze marches into the end-of-holiday revue at Kellerman’s and says, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” will remain with them forever. With its legendary lines (“I carried a watermelon”), feelgood soundtrack and hip-rolling moves, the 1987 film Dirty Dancing captured the hearts of a generation.

It is these women who predominate in the audience of the West End’s Aldwych Theatre, where the atmosphere resembles a (civilised) hen party. Re-creating old favourites like this on stage must be tricky, even with the same writer, Eleanor Bergstein, involved. Do you put a new stamp on it or remain faithful to the original? Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage, in its fourth year with a new cast freshly in place, follows the latter path.

Some of the set adaptations from screen to stage work better than others – the bridge on which Baby practises her steps is perfect, the lift scene in the lake isn’t – and the stage show explores in more depth the political background of “that summer” in 1963 when Daddy’s girl Frances “Baby” Houseman meets rebellious dance teacher Johnny Castle on a family holiday at Kellerman’s resort.

As in the film, the dancing outshines the acting – there are some dubious American accents and moments of unwarranted melodrama. Johnny Wright stood out as (the other) Johnny, echoing Patrick Swayze even in his gestures; while classically trained Hannah Vassallo as Baby does her best at dancing someone who can’t dance learning to dance. There are some nice crowd set pieces too – “clean” cha cha chas and mambos – as well as the more risqué choreographies danced by the staff at the resort, featuring the familiar face and endless legs of “So You Think You Can Dance” winner Charlie Bruce.

By the end of the show, anticipation of the big moment has become too much for some members of the audience and when Johnny comes to claim his Baby someone behind me actually emits a little yelp, then the wolf-whistling and shrieking starts in earnest. The “dirty dancing”, in truth, is as innocent as most adolescent summers, but they’re always the summers we long to relive, and Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage offers more than ample opportunity to do that.

Photographs © Tristam Kenton

Nicola Rayner was editor of Dance Today from 2010 to 2015. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and Time Out Buenos Aires, where she cut her teeth as a dance journalist working on the tango section. Now acting editor of Discover Britain magazine, she continues to dance everything from ballroom to breakdance, with varying degrees of success.

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