New Theatre, Cardiff, March 16 2016
If the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing package is a cake smothered in royal icing and twizzlers, then tango is the glistening knife brought forward to slice through it. Tango specialists Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace have departed the show, leaving it if not bereft of tango-tingle then without the acme of its performance. They are tangoists supreme, tango to a tee, Mr and Mrs ‘A for Argentine’ Tango (though they’re not man and wife). The blade has been withdrawn. Eat what’s left.
Cue The Last Tango, the pair’s Strictly afterlife produced by Adam Spiegel, in which on paper the danger of the dance threatens to give way to minor hazard or no hazard at all. As it turns out, and before we get to the steps in which the couple specialises as though fearlessly treading hot coals, there’s a welcome lack of smooch and little marshmallow texture. There could well have been. Mostly the show exudes genuine warmth and emotion. For this is reportedly the third and last time Flavia and Vincent are appearing in a theatrical show together on tour, following the successes of Midnight Tango and Dance ‘Til Dawn. No-one can blame them. Always giving your all must take it out of you.
You can either dance to a tune, dance to a series of tunes, or dance to a series of tunes held together by a narrative. In this show, no-one appears to take credit for the story, unless it’s the director, Karen Bruce. Whatever, this story’s as sweet and as fragile as spun sugar. The actor Teddy Kempner stations himself in the rafters of Morgan Large’s set, which does as part-attic in which the Vincent character as a nostalgic oldie reflects on his life with the now-departed Flavia character. It’s hardly irreverent to state that though the life is portrayed as dance and dancing, Mr Kempner’s frame refuses to suggest that he once tripped with gusto the light fantastic or any other. But perhaps that’s how it’s meant to be. Every dance tells a non-terpsichoreal tale.
Down below, Vincent, Flavia and eight dancers with the energy of sixteen fly through routines conceived by no fewer than five choreographers, mainly the director and the two principals. It shows, Legs-akimbo invention, outside the pair’s numerous set-pieces, never ceases, and the music, with retro vocalist Matthew Gent prominent above Steve Geere’s orchestral direction, is based on Strictly‘s formula of jazzy contemporaneity. Without Strictly, the show might never have taken place. And, as the depicted life-history includes the Second World War, the musical numbers – from Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Straighten Up And Fly Right to Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies – reflect the era when dance meant moving well beyond an area of operations the size of a hop-scotch grid.
But tango is the show’s reason for being. We never remember Vince and Flavia for their Strictly waltzes and American smooths, ace though they were. Almost all their featured dances in this show are either tangos or tango-inflected numbers, with the leg caress, or caricia, as irresistible as Dr Strangelove’s dodgy reflex salute. Close embracing is always pretty much manifest or ever on the cards. The tango variations are as fascinating as the pure thing itself, though in many places too much of the dance’s smouldering sexuality wouldn’t have sat well with the clean-cut story of boy meets girl, boy and girl become man and wife, man goes off to war, man returns from war unscathed, wife and man have lots of babies, wife (much later, one supposes) dies, and man is left superannuated in a loft of memories. It isn’t even South American, as the flags waved when the war ends are Union Jacks.
But this is a story for all times and places with just a UK twist. It could have been told as a milonga, or Argentinean dance weekend, with Vincent and Flavia both young and old milonguero and milonguera, but as it is there are poignant moments, not least the scene in which the scarlet-frocked Flavia spins from Vince’s arms to disappear upstage and – it turns out – off this corporeal orb. It’s the signal for some of the most touching scenes of the evening at a point when the rest of the cast are quite rightly leaving the two on stage together, first for a kind of spirit dance to the tune of Autumn Leaves and then – something for which we were all waiting while indulging ourselves – a final star-spangled tango of such pulsating finesse it makes you want to dash out and join a salsa class after taking a shower. Well, it would be a start, if late in the day.
Alpha-pluses also to that lively ensemble – Callum Clack, Diana Girbau, Rebecca Herszenhorn, Jamie Hughes-Ward, Aaron James, Rebecca Lisewski, Jemima Loddy and Grant Thresh; Vicky Gill for costumes light and alluring; James Whiteside for unfussy lighting; and a small pit band (though no bandenéons for that familiar tango sound) that come across as twice the size, thanks probably to sonic designer Richard Brooker and the orchestrations of Chris Egan and Matt Smith.