Dirty Dancing, review: Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, until July 20

Dirty Dancing. Picture by Alastair Muir
Dirty Dancing. Picture by Alastair Muir

Dirty Dancing? It’s clean as a whistle, and it has the whole Congress Theatre rocking this week, with a high-energy, hugely likeable touring production.

Indeed, it’s very hard not to like this show. The story doesn’t tax the intellect, but it vividly brings to life some perennial themes and universal truths. Teens growing up fast, parents reluctant to let go, young lovers loving on impulse and living in the moment.

Time to step in the time machine. We are careering back to the summer of ’63: always a token for summer days and nights, kids in blue jeans, young romance and great music. And hope.

Uncannily, this is a landmark week for remembering history. Where were you when the first human stepped on the Moon, when JFK – only months from death although he didn’t know it – infused a young world with idealism, when Martin Luther King spoke prophetic, inspiring words to his nation and to mankind?

Where were you? Some of us really do remember, but even if you were not born, you only need a night at the Congress Theatre to relive the memories of that generation. The production lives and breathes – and dances and sings – with the very pulse of 1963. The kids of the cast sing out Woody Guthrie’s anthem This Land is Your Land and follow it with the ultimate Joan Baez human rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’. And every harmony is authentic.

Against this backdrop, Dirty Dancing tells its story. Newsreel clips and projections seamlessly link world events to the events of Kellermans Holiday Park, where the Housman family has arrived for a three-week vacation. All four members are strongly and engagingly played: Lynden Edwards and Lori Haley Fox as the parents, protective but far from inflexible or uncaring, and Lizzie Otley as slightly side-lined but characterful older daughter Lisa. And Baby.

Now then, step forward Katie Eccles. Listed as the Swing, Katie on Tuesday’s opening night – and for the whole week, I gather – stepped up to the pivotal role of Baby. And she played her socks off. From gauche young teen in unflattering flats and shorts, to dazzling and triumphant lead dancer and love partner, Katie is astonishingly good.

If there is a tiny quibble, the timbre of her speaking voice might be half an octave higher, to convey the youthfulness. But it really is a quibble. Nobody puts this Baby in a corner.

Opposite her, Michael O’Reilly’s Johnny Castle is commanding. The middle-aged ladies are whistling when he peels the shirt off, but this Johnny is more than just a hunky torso. Michael’s posture and all his movement and dancing are strong, assured, simply fabulous, and it’s hard to believe that this is his first role straight out of drama school. What a gig to land, and what a talent for the future.

Terrific support comes from the entire ensemble, including a breezy four-piece band. Jack McKenzie brings genial authority to the Max Kellerman role, and there are gold stars too for – among others – Simone Covele as a wonderful high-kicking Penny, and Sian Gentle-Green whose belt thrillingly fills the auditorium.

Caught ever so slightly between truth to the stage show or homage to the movie, the production makes inventive use of back projections, but some of them are too fleeting to be useful. And however can any director or designer re-create the legendary Failed Lift in the Lake? You’ll be surprised and very impressed….

Overall, though, it works. There is nice attention to detail – was that an actual Dansette portable record player? – and the bright sets, with three slickly operated revolves, give the holiday park an authentic feel.

Never mind the story, cliched and improbable and once or twice shamelessly contrived. Young love doesn’t need a plot, just starry sky, a great vocal line and a huge, exuberant dance routine. Go on: reel back those decades, kick your shoes off and rock on with Dirty Dancing.

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