United Kingdom Nadiya & Kai – Once Upon A Time: Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, 31.3.2023. (JPr)
Co-Creators and Choreography – Nadiya Bychkova and Kai Widdrington
Director and Choreographer – Scott Coldwel
Musical Supervisor – Matt Howes
Set and Lighting designer – Dougie FF Cairns
Sound design – Jon Roache
Costume stylist – Carol Howard
Nadiya Bychkova and Kai Widdrington
Singer and Guitarist – Tomas Wolstenholme
Ensemble – Chloe Hewitt (Dance Captain), Jasmine Chan, Margot Weeda, Adam Brunei, Oliver Beardmore, Ruben Rodriquez
It begins with Nadiya Bychkova’s voice saying, ‘Join us as we step into a magical world of song and dance. Once Upon A Time is a fairy-tale like no other.’ The show proves to be ‘like no other’ I have seen and the first person we see is multi-talented guitarist and singer Tomas Wolstenholme alone on stage playing classical guitar before what we hear morphs into a sequence of pre-recorded music as we welcome the three couples supporting Nadiya and Kai Widdrington. The six are fantastic dancers in their own right and get enough moments to shine themselves. All the foxtrotting, jiving and other dance styles we get to see – from Nadiya and Kai’s own choreography, as well as that of director Scott Coldwell – then gets underway. The opening number gets faster and faster and as the show continues you will be left in awe at, not just at how amazing all the dancers are, but at their superhuman stamina!
Kai is a relaxed presence when talking to the audience, ‘We’ve been travelling the UK far and wide but tonight we are here live … and in the flesh!’ to which Nadiya added, ‘We want you to get to know us, to get to know us a little bit better too, sharing the journey through the world of dance and of course our journey together as well.’ Nadiya continued, ‘Our show tonight will take you through our childhood memories, our competition days, into our time on Strictly [Come Dancing] and beyond; our passion, our inspiration, and our hopes for the future.’ Kai adding, ‘Now what can you expect from the show? Beautiful costumes, beautiful dancing, yes essential, and, of course, some really bad impressions from myself. Cue spot-on ‘Anton Du Beke’ saying to Nadiya, ‘You are a star’. The costumes are indeed sparkly, colourful and – apologies Craig Revel Horwood – ‘fab-u-lous’, and indeed it is Nadiya’s mother, Larisa, who is responsible for her spectacular ones.
We are taken ‘back to where it all started’ and hear about Kai’s love for ‘the F word … Football!’ (his father Tommy played for Southampton) before deciding that a career in dance was for him. Wolstenholme sings ‘I Wanna Be a Dancing Man’ made famous by Fred Astaire and we begin to appreciate who was one of Kai’s biggest inspirations. The set is a simple one, though elegant and effective none the less: there are some shallow stage wide steps at the rear with four vertical projection screens used especially well in particular numbers, such as in ‘Dancing Man’ when we see five Kais dancing in sync and then later there will be five Nadiyas.
As a child in Ukraine, Nadiya was encouraged to do anything she wanted and we learnt it was her grandmother ‘who introduced Nadiya to the magic of dance, it was the elegance of the ballroom and the gorgeous dresses that inspired her, and she was a natural from the start. It was clear she was going to be something special … one girl, one dream, to become the number one dancer on the planet to become a world champion’. Cue Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock With You’: the recorded music was usually in upbeat and dance-friendly medleys and mashups, featuring the original artists or cover versions. All it perhaps lacked was a live female voice to join Wolstenholme with the onstage singing.
Continuing memories of their early days, Kai said ‘For us it was the competitive element, competing against the top couples in the world only made us want to train harder and keep improving. When you are competing at the top level it is inevitable that you will end up at the home of ballroom dancing … welcome to Blackpool!’ With tongue (firmly) in cheek, he called it ‘The Las Vegas of the British Isles’. Wolstenholme brought back memories – for those of a certain age – of George Formby and his ukulele as he sang ‘With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock’. There is a nice skit on a Blackpool world championship competition with the three couples ‘competing’ against each other (Chloe Hewitt with Oliver Beardmore, Margot Weeda and Ruben Rodriguez, Jasmine Chan and Adam Brunei) to Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood’, and the very familiar dance numbers ‘Sway’ (that has been covered by many singers) and ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Chloe and Oliver are pronounced the winners by audience acclamation. (Apparently, they are from Southend, but I suspect the winners will be from wherever they are dancing next!) Kai tells us ‘There is no feeling better than winning a world championship’ to which Nadiya quips, ‘Ah yes there is, winning two!’ In fact, Nadiya is a five-time world champion.
Kai clearly enjoys banter with the audience (watch out if you are someone sitting in the front row!) and tells a few corny Strictly jokes – including, ‘What time does Len Goodman, like to have his dinner? and ‘Why does Anton Du Beke like dancing next to the sink?’ – that have the audience groaning, yet laughing out loud.
A section on the people who have inspired them has Nadiya singing and acting as Marilyn Monroe for ‘I Wanna Be Loved by You’. For Kai it was Elvis and he danced to ‘The King’ singing ‘Trouble’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Wolstenholme sings ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ as Nadiya and Kai dance a deeply romantic duet before he plays and sings a wonderful flamenco-style ‘Toxic’ (the Britney Spears hit) as a rampant paso doble from all concerned closes the first half.
Much of the same in an equally great second half when Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’ hints at Nadiya and Kai’s more recent history as a couple brought together by their time on Strictly. There is their modern take on the Cinderella story, beginning with a dreamy waltz to Wolstenholme singing Ed Sheeran’s ‘Perfect’ and ending with a classic one (Kai in tails) to Nat King Cole singing ‘When I Fall in Love’. Kai reveals how ‘Dancing on television every week on the biggest show on television is something Nadiya and I will never, ever, take for granted. We owe so much to Strictly’. Discussing their passions, he said that for Nadiya it is fashion, and she has followed the work of top designers since she was a little girl and is now being inspired by female pop icons, like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez. For Kai himself, it is ‘showmen, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Freddie Mercury and modern-day Bruno Mars.’ Most importantly he said, ‘Dancing will always be our first love, but who knows what the future could hold for us both, we could all dream.’ Hopefully they will ‘keep dancing’ (!) on Strictly for a while yet because too many have been seduced to leave quickly after becoming famous … and are not so famous now.
A great sequence of music and dancing closes this memorable show, including Kai playing guitar with Wolstenholme on ‘Billionaire’ (a hit for Travie McCoy, feat. Bruno Mars), then there is a rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘Because You Loved Me’ (as a touching tribute to Nadiya and Kai’s families) and Wolstenholme’s vocals accompany ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz’ and ‘Jump, Jive an’ Wail’ and ushers in the energy-sapping finale to a standing ovation from those in the Cliffs Pavilion.
For more about the Once Upon A Time tour click here.