New fever outbreak more serious

Saturday Night Fever

That white suit and outstretched arm can only man one thing - Tony Manero is Stayin' Alive back in the 70s

Saturday Night Fever

Malvern Theatres

***

A SMALL confession: I’ve never seen the film Saturday Night Fever. That’s partly because I thought I knew what it would be like.

Waiting for the start of this stage adaptation from Theatre Royal Bath Productions I was expecting a disco version of Grease, all fashion and passion and kitsch.

What I hadn’t realised was that the film version that most people are familiar with, and which  must have seeped into my disco doubting subconscious, was a cleaned up family friendly edit, with darker scenes and swearing removed from the original film which had been rated an 18.

Robert Stigwood – producer of the 1977 film – along with Bill Oakes, adapted Norman Wexler’s original uncensored script for this new production, which makes for a far grittier piece than I’d bargained for. This is especially evident in the second half, and I was surprised to see no warnings of the show’s strong language or adult themes and content. There was, however, plenty of entertainment too, with a talented cast of twenty young actors displaying impressive musical, vocal and dancing ability, and despite the undercurrent of despair, there was much to enjoy.

Let us start with the Bee Gees. Musical director Paul Herbert has done a marvellous job of using the Bee Gees’ songs to add to the story, to hold it together, move it forwards and to highlight certain recurring themes. I suppose I’ve heard plenty of Bee Gees songs in my time without listening very carefully, but the lyrics became much more interesting when heard as part of the story of characters’ lives, with certain refrains – Life going nowhere - echoing throughout the piece.

Which brings us to the hero of the dance floor, nineteen year old would-be disco king Tony Manero, in his dead-end job, still living with his dysfunctional parents in Brooklyn, plenty of admirers but no real connections . . .

My problem with Tony (played by Danny Bayne, winner of ITV’s Grease is the Word) is that he starts out as a rather unlikeable young man, who believes that every female is either ‘a nice girl or a bitch’.

Through his strained relationships with family, friends, former dance partner Annette (Bethany Linsdell) and new dance partner Stephanie (Naomi Slights) I think we’re meant to see him become wiser, kinder, more likeable. Except that I never grew to like him. At all. Bayne plays him well, and there is no doubt that he’s a talented performer, I just didn’t really get Tony or care that much for him either way.

GANG OF FRIENDS

I’m afraid that went for most of the other characters too and although each performer played their part finely, the cast and couples didn’t quite seem to gel. Joey was played by understudy Joe Vetch, and the show started fifteen minutes late so perhaps there were issues behind the scenes that had put the cast on edge. That is by no means a slur on Vetch’s performance however, and he along with Alex Lodge and Llandyll Gove (Bobby C and Double J) made a convincing gang of friends for Tony.

My favourite performer of the night by far was CiCi Howells, musician and club singer, who belted out some great numbers during dance scenes, and sang softly during scene changes. The best dance partnership was made up of Michael Stewart and Alishia-Marie Blake as Cesar and Maria, the only couple with real chemistry, and it was a huge shame that we didn’t see more of them. Likewise with Mike Lloyd, who played Tony’s alcoholic dad perfectly adequately but seemed wasted in such a miserable role. Lloyd deserves to stand out, and was wonderful with his bizarre portrayal of fairly minor characters in last year’s Dreamboats and Petticoats.

Credit must go to choreographer Andrew Wright, designer Simon Kenny and lighting designer Ben Cracknell. The stage looked fabulous, and the multi-functional cubes with their multi-coloured flashing lights, used as train carriages, night club booths and café corners, were superbly seventies. There was high energy at times, with hits like Disco Inferno, Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever, and fantastic drumming from Nick James which added to the dynamism. There were moments that were touching, and I loved the line from Tony’s brother Frank (Matthew Quinn) on his faith and leaving the priesthood, explaining how his parents had pressured him to live a life he’d never wanted: ‘Now I realise what I really believed in was their image of me as a priest.’

But the whole production felt to me like it was somehow less than the sum of its parts. It had all the ingredients of a brilliant show, but for me it didn’t quite make it. Perhaps there was too much in there, so that none of it could be covered adequately. There was humour, but not enough; there was Tragedy, but not enough; there was soul searching, but not enough. Everything felt rushed, skimmed over – the racism, the sexism, the issues around religion, abortion, sexual abuse. I suppose I left the theatre unsure of what exactly I’d just seen. The ending was abrupt and a little disappointing, but the finale reminded us that the first half at least had been (mostly) up-tempo and fun. A bit more Disco Inferno and Night Fever and a lot more dancing and most of the audience left happy. Perhaps it was just me who was slightly bewildered.

Saturday Night Fever moves on from Malvern to Edinburgh and then comes back to continue its tour of England. Go and see it if bleak disco storylines are your thing or if you simply need more Bee Gees in your life. To 07-02-15.

Amy Rainbow

04-02-15 

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