The Theatreguide.London Review
Dance Lessons in Six Weeks
Richard Alfieri's play is the occasion to see two movie stars, one of whom is giving an excellent performance, and that may be enough to make you want to see it. There's not much more.
Alfieri has dipped into a stock plot situation you've seen many times before - older, conservative person is forced into the company of just the sort of younger person he/she has prejudices about, and the two gradually develop a mutual tolerance and friendship of sorts. In its more common form it's an incapacitated older man and his black/Jewish/hippie/gay/whatever carer.
Here it's a Baptist minister's widow and her flamboyantly gay dance instructor. Over the titular period they each come to see past their prejudices, to discover the other as a person rather than a stereotype, and to develop a warm friendship. End of play.
The problem is that we don't. That is, for us the characters never advance beyond the stereotypes they were at the start. What few revelations the script saves for later in the play are telegraphed long in advance, and you get no points for guessing that she can dance and is only taking the lessons because she's lonely or that his gay (in the old sense) exterior masks a wounded heart.
The only surprise - look away now if you don't want to know - is that those pills he keeps popping aren't AZT, as the play keeps hinting, but just vitamins.
Still, there can be some pleasure in watching two attractive characters literally and figuratively dance their way through the familiar patterns, but only if the performers bring loads of personal charm and talent to their roles. And here, I fear, you get short-changed.
Claire Bloom is an actress of proven merit and a distinguished career, but she brings almost nothing to this play. Her performance is a blank, lacking any depth, insight, personality or emotional content, and any other actress of her age could have done at least as well. On top of that, she has a small but continuous problem with her lines, cues and timing.
Billy Zane's programme biography mentions only one previous theatrical appearance, but he takes to the stage like a master, not only creating a believable character out of the collection of clichés the script gives him, but holding the stage with energy and charm.
He also gives a special kind of performance that students of acting should want to study, because he carries his co-star through the entire evening. I don't mean just that he repeatedly covers her flubs and mistimings, but that he generates all the energy in their encounters and projects it onto her to make it look like she's bearing her share of the load.
(How do you do that? For example, by responding to what she says woodenly as if it were more alive, and thus creating the illusion that it was.)
It is a performance of great generosity as well as technical skill, and is ultimately the best reason to see this show.
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Review - Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks - Haymarket 2006