Strictly Come Dancing Live, review: slick, glitzy arena show proves it has plenty of foxtrots left

Directed by willing villain Craig Revel Horwood, Strictly’s live show gives fans what they want – and then some

Mark Brown
21 January 2023

There were a few Cassandras proclaiming that the BBC’s hit TV programme Strictly Come Dancing had lost its mojo when the 2022 final brought in a mere 9.6 million viewers (almost two million fewer than in pandemic-stricken 2021). However – if the palpably enthralled, 8,000-strong audience for the opening night of the 2023 live tour was any indication – the Beeb’s competitive pro-celebrity dance show (which turns 20 next year) has quite a few foxtrots left in it yet.

Whether on screen or in large performance venues such as the Utilita Arena Birmingham, Strictly continues to thrive on its tried-and-tested formula. There’s a bit of double-entendre laden banter between the judges (Anton Du Beke joins Shirley Ballas and the show’s director Craig Revel Horwood for this year’s tour), and a little chat with the TV-famous dancing couples (led off by host, and former Strictly contestant, Janette Manrara, whose post-interval frock resembled an ornate, Viennese lemon cake).

Most importantly, of course, there’s the dancing. Seven couples – including last year’s winners, TV ecologist Hamza Yassin and his pro-dancer partner Jowita Przystal – perform two dances each. They are competing for the “purely advisory” votes of the judges and the all-important text votes of the live audience.

The prize? None other than the Strictly Live Glitterball, which will be awarded at each and every performance of the tour.
If the near pointlessness of this attempt to maintain the veneer of competitiveness troubled the opening night audience, it didn’t show. As the celebrity contestants – from actor Will Mellor to Paralympian Ellie Simmonds – insisted that it was their “dream” to walk away with this evening’s prize, no-one seemed to mind that they’d be dreaming of it twice again tomorrow (at both the matinee and evening performances).

The audience’s indulgence of this conceit should come as no surprise. Strictly is a game in which everyone, fans included, plays their allotted part.

Revel Horwood, for instance, takes on the role of boo-inducing pantomime baddie. When he’s not calling everyone “darling”, the camp curmudgeon is riling the crowd by offering the only negative commentaries of the dancers. It’s all for show, of course, as every couple gets excellent marks, with the final tallies of judges’ votes ranging from 51 to 58 out of 60.

Down on the dance floor, and accompanied by the excellent Strictly big band and singers, the dancers made the most of the opportunities provided by the sheer capaciousness of the venue. Liberated from the restrictions of the TV studio, actor and singer Molly Rainford and partner Carlos Gu swept around the vast floor space with a high-octane quickstep.

Indeed, across the 14 competitive dances, there was barely a foot put wrong. So tightly scripted is the show, in fact, that one couldn’t help but suspect that even the “fails” – such as Hamza missing a lift of Jowita – were written in (although pro-dancer Dianne Buswell losing an extension to her bright pink hair might well have been a genuine hiccup).

Glitzier than the late Liberace’s Christmas tree and cheesier than a visit to a dairy farm, Strictly Live – with its quickfire adrenaline rushes of Charlestons, sambas and paso dobles – gives the TV show’s fans what they want, and then some. This slick two-and-a-half hour extravaganza certainly suggests that 9.6 million Strictly fans can’t be wrong.