Lily, a 72 year-old retiree, lives alone in an apartment block overlooking the sea in St Petersburg Beach, Florida. Her Baptist minister husband is dead, but when her new gay dance teacher, Michael, turns up to deliver the first of 6 dance lessons, she pretends her husband is still alive and 'out at the mall or visiting friends'. But Michael also pretends - that he is married. Sparks soon fly though when Michael's vitriolic, bitter humour finds something of a match in ex-teacher, Lily. However, as the lessons continue, the two pretenders start to form an unlikely bond, dancing their way into a predictably soppy friendship.
Described in the programme as a 'new' play, this two hander was apparently a hit in New York and has played with success in other parts of the US since at least 2001 - so it's really not that new. Quite why it's had so much success could easily form the subject of an Agatha Christie mystery, because this tame and lame piece has little that could be described as fresh or inspiring. Just think of all those drearily feeble sitcoms we've mostly snored through on TV - requiring canned laughter to make them seem even remotely amusing - and you have an inkling of what this play is like. The jokes are few and relatively unmemorable when they arrive - though there are one or two exceptions, for example when Lily says “I'm wearing my f*** me dress and I'm gonna dance”, or when describing her husband: “our relationship has improved since he died”. However, the subject matter is stale and the direction is weak.
The problem is that Richard Alfieri's script has little to say that is new, different or unique. That would be alright if it had some refreshing characterisations, but it doesn't, depending instead on sentimentality to carry it through. What it actually turns out to be is a mish-mash of subject matter that has now been well-worn over the past decade or two. For example, Lily thinks Michael might have aids, and is surprised that he pays for sex. And of course, Michael has suffered at the hands of lovers, and his mother died of altzheimer's disease. Lily too has had her share of grief when her daughter died at the age of 20 as a result of an illegal abortion, with little comfort or support from her husband. It's all too predictable and obvious to stir or challenge the actors, the director and certainly not the audience. On top of all that, the format (for the first half at least) locks us into an interminably repetitive and boring routine with unendurably long scene changes which made me wonder if the cast and crew had fallen asleep, and that the shadowy figures shuffling about the stage in the semi-darkness were merely theatrical ghosts. I lost count of the number of times that a rug on stage was carefully laid out in the scene change, only to be immediately taken up at the start of the next scene. An infuriatingly pointless exercise that added nothing to the exposition or the dramatic development.
Veteran actor Claire Bloom, looking exceptionally youthful, takes on the role of Lily but seems ill at ease, awkward and unsure quite how to react. Often she just stands motionless until she has to dive into her lines when her cue crops up. There are occasional glimpses of what might have been when a few sparks fly between the two characters, and Bloom demonstrates some nuances of a controlled, but fiery temperament. Strangely, the direction fails to build on it, and there are abrupt and inexplicable reversals in Bloom's character which don't' ring true. Billy Zane is more confident as dance teacher Michael, but predictably dresses in outlandish costumes for the dances he's going to teach. And Zane copes adequately with the dancing, as does Bloom, though it's hardly stunning choreography.
From the start, I wondered why the set was oddly boxed-in and peculiarly cumbersome. All was revealed at the end, however, when the final coup de grâce of overpowering and totally unnecessary sentimentality showed the need for the strangely-shaped set as the dancing duo disappear into a schmaltzy sunset.
If this piece is going to work at all, it needs the intimacy of a smaller venue and much more forceful and astute direction. But even with those advantages, I'm not sure that it would enthrall. “That was ... nice” said a woman behind us on her way out. A generous comment that speaks volumes.
Next review by Chloe Preece
The title 6 Dance Lessons in 6 Weeks summarizes the plot but what it doesn’t tell you is how dull dance lessons can be made. When gay dance instructor Michael (played by Billy Zane) goes to teach 6 different dances to retired widow Lily Harrison (played by Claire Bloom) in her Florida condo, a clash of personalities ensues - she is strait-laced and untrusting, the wife of a Southern Baptist minister; he has a terrible temper and uses foul language instinctively and they are both lonely and bitter. This resolves itself predictably (and very, very slowly), in a wonderful friendship, overcoming their many differences. The title may be effective in summarizing the plot but it also encapsulates the repetitive and formulaic nature of the play. Although the structure has to be rigid, and its not surprising to see 6 dance lessons, spaced over, you guessed it, 6 weeks; every scene seems to be duplicated from the last: going through the same process of meeting, arguing, resolving the issue and dancing, with a telephone call from Lily’s neighbor Ida who phones to complain, with rigorous promptness, every time they start to dance, put in for extra spice. Of course there are a few differences – in one scene she discovers a secret of his, in another he finds out she’s lying about something else, but the cyclical formula rapidly becomes boring, making it seem like the most intense and drawn-out déjà-vu I have ever experienced!
Moreover, the scene changes seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, with furniture being moved a few inches in either direction, and the all important rug rolled down, only for Zane to pick it up as soon as the scene starts, while the audience waits in the dark listening to whichever greatest hit song for the chosen dance. This made for a disjointed play, and by the end of it I was waiting for the rug’s short appearances with great anticipation although still not having understood why exactly it was needed at all.
Unfortunately, what could have been a funny and inspiring play turns out to be a tedious affair which one audience member behind me dismissed with a polite “that was nice,” comment, enough to send a chill down any director’s spine. There is little chemistry between the actors, Claire Bloom seems ill at ease in the role and although Zane is at times convincingly camp he lacks the charisma to really draw in the audience. The real culprit however, is the script, written by Richard Alfieri, which despite a couple of witty one-liners, relies mainly on stale jokes and is peppered with stereotypes, and every time there is a twist we see it coming long in advance, leaving absolutely no surprises with the resolution a foregone conclusion. The whole thing reminded me of Strictly Come Dancing, the jokes were as passé as Bruce Forsyth’s but come to think of it, at least Strictly Come Dancing has the intrigue of who’s getting voted off next, something which would make this play immensely more interesting, or at least mercifully shorter. The dances were in fact choreographed by one of the show’s judges, Craig Revel Horwood and while there was nothing bad about them there was no magic either, nothing spectacular. Even the set was disappointing, with a massive bayview picture window where lighting creates the changing skyscape, with many kitsch sunsets and allowing the cliché ending to go completely over the top with a final shooting star. My only wish was to leave.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Awkward production, with its over-long pauses between scenes...a gush of escapist sentimentality that I fear I found quite irresistible." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The only mild pleasure of the evening derives from the performance of Billy Zane as Michael." SAM MARLOWE fro THE TIMES, "Bland, mawkish play...Seidelman’s production is too clumsy, and the play too mechanical and sentimentally manipulative to be touching. Nor is it especially funny...irretrievably flatfooted." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THNE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "As feelgood shows go, this is among the most instantly forgettable." ALICE JONES for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Nothing more than a predictable, fluffy, weepy confection of clichés."