Home » London Theatre Reviews » Syncopation at Bridewell Theatre | Review

Syncopation at Bridewell Theatre | Review

Seeing as Henry Ribolow (Jye Frasca) made a big deal, more than once, out of the 108 steps it takes him to reach his fifth-floor rented space, which he uses as a dance studio, it made sense, at least for me, to run the numbers. They are not, in the end, unreasonable. Assuming five inches per step, this is a total of 540 inches, or 108 inches (funnily enough) per floor, or to put it another way, the building’s ceilings are nine feet tall. Set in 1912, Henry decides to take out a series of advertisements in a local newspaper, and the first respondent is Anna Bianchi (Devon-Elise Johnson). By day, he works as a meat packer for a Jewish butcher (I’m still not clear on what else they would pack), and she sews beads onto fabrics in a factory, following very precise designs. It’s one of those appalling workplaces with draconian on-the-spot sackings for anything from innocent mistakes to being one minute late.

Syncopation Manilla Street Productions London
Syncopation Manilla Street Productions London

What unites them is a love of ballroom dancing. He has specific views on what constitutes good dancing, though there was something in his newspaper advertisements about dancing ‘for royalty’ that made little sense in a country deliberately set up without a monarchy. The awkwardness of a first meetup is portrayed well – perhaps a little too well, as the show took a while to get going. There was a moment in this two-hander, in the first half, when she threatened to leave, and he agreed she could and indeed should do so, but whether she did or not, one could easily tell it wasn’t going to be the end of their story.

The overall narrative arc was fairly predictable, too. The director’s note in the show’s programme references BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing – despite Ribolow’s relentless passion for dance and distinct lack of passion for anything else, including sexual drive, and Bianchi being betrothed to Anthony Parva (one of many unseen characters in this play), the so-called ‘Strictly curse’ eventually falls on the dancing duo. Quite how this happens is not entirely convincing, but it doesn’t really matter, because the comedy and entertainment value is there in spades.

The choreography (Jenny Thomson, who has credits, amongst other things, for both Strictly and the American equivalent, Dancing with the Stars) goes well with the storyline, with the levels of sophistication and precision increasing as the evening, and the story, goes on. The stage is relatively uncluttered – it has to be, to accommodate all that dancing. Not only that, being a play with songs, the audience is treated to some smooth and silky singing. Beth Duke’s sound design is excellent, balancing the volume of the musicians (led by Fiz Shapur) with the voices of the cast.

There’s a lot in this play, or at least it feels that way, at least partly because of the sheer amount of off-stage drama – the audience never gets to meet Ribolow’s beloved mother, or any of Bianchi’s love interests, or any of either character’s work colleagues. But there’s only so much that can be dramatised in a two-hander predominantly about dancing. Firmly set in its time period, there are references to Ribolow’s participation in protest marches, and the ballroom dancer Irene Castle (1893-1969) is namedropped several times.

The production offers something quite unique – a lot of ballroom dancing in a play – and, like that Saturday evening television show, there’s plenty of backstory and rehearsals to watch and enjoy. A light-hearted and pleasantly entertaining night out.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

1912 New York and ballroom dancing halls are filled with the syncopated beats of ragtime music. Meatpacker Henry is seeking a new dance partner and when seamstress Anna responds to his advertisement, life takes an unexpected turn. Allan Knee’s award-winning two-person drama is a fascinating blend of theatre, music and dance.

This premiere production features West-End and Broadway performers Devon-Elise Johnson (Half a Sixpence, Mamma Mia, Titanic), and Jye Frasca (Wicked, Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins), choreography by Strictly Come Dancing’s Jenny Thomas and a live band under the musical direction of Fiz Shapur.
Syncopation
UK Premiere
Written by: Allan Knee
Presented by: Manilla Street Productions
Directed by: Karen Jemison

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