Review – Saturday Night Fever, Milton Keynes Theatre, 24th February 2015

Saturday Night FeverDid you see the film of Saturday Night Fever? I loved it. I was exactly the right age for it, being 18 when I was taken for a night out in Toronto by my cousins for a meal, some drinks and a movie. Originally I’d wanted to go to the USA as part of my gap year, but staying with relatives in Canada was so much cheaper and easier, and I had a whale of a time. And at least Canada was on the right side of the Atlantic to watch Saturday Night Fever. It felt remarkably cosmopolitan to see it surrounded by genuine North American accents.

Danny BayneI’d already taken the songs to my heart. I especially liked Stayin’ Alive, with that John Travolta video of the arrogant Tony Manero walking down the street, in the opening sequence of the film. It was strangely aspirational to be like him, even though, for the most part, the character is a complete toe-rag. Cool, trendy, successful with girls. What’s not to like? I actually learned the dance steps to the song Night Fever so that I could be a wow at the disco. Not that I hardly ever went to discos. I can still remember some of it – twisting the torso left and right with your arms spinning into claps whilst your feet traced out the letter N on the floor. If I did it now I’d need an immediate appointment with the chiropractor. I remember how the story of the film turned dark, with the tragic suicide of Bobby falling off the bridge and the rape of Annette whilst she’s stoned. That all brought a lump to my throat first time round. I couldn’t remember how it ended – which is with Tony and Stephanie, his dance partner, sharing a quiet moment where he tries to make good all the bad things he’d done. Cue end credits.

Naomi SlightsYou can’t deny that the current touring production of Saturday Night Fever, produced by the Theatre Royal Bath, and this week at Milton Keynes, isn’t true to the original, apart from two rather odd inclusions. When Bobby sings about his troubled existence the song they use is Tragedy, not an inappropriate choice by any means, but which is from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown album, which came out in 1979, two years after the film of Saturday Night Fever. Not that anachronisms seem to be a problem here. The show starts with President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 TV address to the nation as a result of the current “crisis of confidence”, whilst New Yorkers queue up to buy gasoline, even though that’s again out by two years. The programme notes show that was a deliberate decision to change the setting to 1979; but with Saturday Night Fever being so definitely part of the 1977/78 me, it jarred. And anyway, why would all these trendy young disco-goers be dancing to songs two years out of date? They’d have moved on to Chic and Shalamar by now.

Bethany LinsdellThis is a good show but not a great one. There are plenty of positives: for example, the lighting is superb. All the way through, the use of colour and dazzling light, as well as subtle shadows, gives you all the sensations of those disco days. The pulsating lights on the dance floor, vivid projections, and gloriously colourfully beautiful scenes evoke disco memories from way back when. The lighting enhances the all-round excitement and entertainment factor of the show, and it really contributes to show-stoppers like the performance of You Should Be Dancing just before the interval. This is another of those productions where the performers play the instruments on stage, and the music they create is amazing. For me it’s the brass that really stands out, and gives extra drive and power to all those famous songs. The choreography is faithful to the original style but is new for this production, and is probably the best I’ve ever seen from choreographer Andrew Wright; and the performers dance with style, attack and conviction. This is evident not only in the classic disco numbers, but also the Latin American sequences danced by Cesar and Maria in the dance contest (Michael Stewart and Alishia-Marie Blake on stonking good form). Simon Kenny’s set adapts and blends constantly, recreating the disco, the bridge, the rehearsal studio, and various cafes and restaurants with apparently effortless ease. We particularly liked how it created those intimate booths you get at restaurants and bars – really inventive.

Matthew QuinnSome of the set piece drama moments worked extremely well. I thought the return of Frank Jnr, Tony’s ex-priest brother, was very convincing – with the chillingly cold response from his parents compared to the warm brotherly relationship he would continue to enjoy with Tony. Matthew Quinn played Frank Jnr with sincerity and anguish, almost tongue-tied at his inability to really explain his decision to leave the priesthood, and amusingly out of place in the New York discos. Rhona McGregor was their deeply religious mother Flo, extracting all the catholic guilt and intolerance she could out of her few angry and pious scenes; and Mike Lloyd was also excellent as their hypocritically idle father, quick to criticise but slow to set an example. The death of Bobby and the rape of Annette were moving and uncomfortable to watch. And I really liked the scene were Tony, Bobby and their other two hoodlum mates Joey and Double J were complaining about how dead-end their existence is, then creating the rhythms to their performance of Jive Talkin’ by banging on the side of boxes and bouncing their basketball – very dramatic and effective (and it had to be played with very deft use of props or else it would have been a disaster!)

Rhona McGregorThe main problem with the whole show is that felt to me very unbalanced. I went into the interval feeling quite exhilarated, and appreciative of the great songs, dance routines and general technical prowess of the whole thing. By comparison the second act seemed really quite dull. Unfortunately, by then they’ve used up most of the best songs, the pace seems to drag, the party feel dies away as the story gets darker, and the whole show seems to run out of puff. When Tony and Stephanie sing How Deep is Your Love on the steps to her apartment, I had no idea at all that was going to be the final scene. Suddenly various dancers are appearing front stage and taking their bows and I actually said out loud, “Wow, is that it? Has it finished?” Indeed it had finished, bar a party style finale where some of the best songs are reprised but by then we were largely too sapped to care, too down to be up. The cast did their best to get us dancing but they didn’t succeed. I felt rather sorry for them really.

Mike LloydDanny Bayne who plays Tony is an excellent song and dance man and comes close to encompassing the character’s vanity and essential cruelty, but both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt that the combination of him, Rory Phelan as Joey and Llandyll Gove as Double J just somehow lacked a certain oomph. The characters seemed almost interchangeable; they didn’t (for me) establish much of an individuality. Not so with Alex Lodge as Bobby, because his character is so different from his mates and he does a good job of conveying Bobby’s anxieties and fears, as well as his frustration at not being understood.

Alex LodgeNaomi Slights’ Stephanie is a no-nonsense smarty-pants with her sights set firmly on climbing the social ladder, which reveals itself as she shows off in front of Tony’s pals without any sense of self-awareness. She’s a great dancer and looks terrific, and handles the tense relationship between her and Tony with admirable assertiveness. I also really liked Bethany Linsdell’s performance as Annette, desperate for some affection, faithful to Tony like a spanked puppy that keeps coming back to its master – she’s also a superb dancer. I was also impressed with CiCi Howells as the Club Singer – a great voice and stage presence, I rather think she might be Someone To Watch.

CiCi HowellsAll in all, an enjoyable night out, with some great singing and dancing, and a visually stunning stage show to watch. In the final analysis though, it just left me a bit cold. Brighton, Bradford, Birmingham, Richmond and Cardiff are the last places on its tour still to come; but I’m sure there will continue to be revivals after revivals.

Review – Grease, Derngate, Northampton, 30th April 2012

GreaseI know you’ll think we’ve led very sheltered lives but neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have ever seen the film Grease; nor had we seen the stage show until last night. Of course, the songs are firmly embedded in our culture and everyone knows them backwards. But it’s always interesting to see how songs from a musical fit into the context of the musical itself – often this gives them a greater depth or a hidden agenda; for example, when we saw Sweet Charity a couple of years ago, Big Spender and Rhythm of Life were huge eye-openers.

Danny BayneAnd so it is with Grease. Think of the really big hits that came out as a result of the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John combination. “You’re the One that I Want” to me sounds like the start of a relationship and therefore I thought would be towards the beginning of the show. “Summer Nights” looks back at good times which suggested to me it would be at the end. Wrong! It’s the other way round. “Grease is the Word” very entertainingly sets the scene to introduce the characters at Rydell High, and also to place the story in its era (“we take the pressure and we throw away conventionality – belongs to yesterday”), and as for “Hopelessly Devoted to You” – we’ll return to that later.

Carina Gillespie Basically there are two reviews to do here – one of this production, and one of the musical itself. Production first. It’s absolutely brilliant. The set is colourful and versatile, serving the songs and the performers without getting in the way. The costumes and the props are all spot-on. The lighting is strong; it enhances the performances, encourages the excitement and even helps communicate the story and the characterisation. There are splendid effects like the Greased Lightning car with its fiery exhaust and the front of stage pyrotechnics – not over-used, but really well integrated. The whole staging and performance of the “Greased Lightning” number was superb, incidentally.

Ricky Rojas And the band? They are amazing. They get their moment of glory in a kind of overture and a couple of times during the show but mostly they are tucked away at the top of the stage behind the scenery. Full of drive, they really rock. Call me an old fuddy-duddy but one of my pet hates in the staging of modern musicals is over-amplification. For me, the amplification was just right. If I’m honest, I thought that in some of the non-musical scenes a few of the characters spoke just a little quietly – but not enough to be a problem.

Kate Somerset How What about the dancing? First-rate. Arlene Phillips’ original choreography is snappy, demanding, energetic and very fast, and perfectly blends late 1950s style with the kind of stuff we like to see in the 21st century; and it is performed with an amazing sense of unity by the entire, hugely likeable, cast. Everyone’s in perfect time; cheeky, sassy, superbly controlled and accurate, visually and orally it really is a feast for all the senses.

Laura Wilson As a true ensemble piece, it’s hard to pick out individual performances; but I will anyway. Danny Bayne plays his namesake Danny Zuko, and if you can’t bring back a 24 year old John Travolta to play the part, I don’t see how you could do better than Mr Bayne. He gives us a cunning combination of cool and weasel, and with a superb singing voice and he’s an incredible dancer. Carina Gillespie is his Sandy; stunning good looks and very convincing as the demure girl surrounded by, let’s say, more experienced types. And she can certainly sell a song; they worked together extremely well.

David O’Reilly The supporting gang member roles are also really well performed. Ricky Rojas as Kenickie was particularly good, full of attitude and cool but with a surprising vulnerability when it comes to the crunch. I also loved Kate Somerset How as Rizzo, a right bitch in her confrontations with Sandy and flighty as a hummingbird when performing multi-dalliance with the guys. On the kookie side, the partnership of Laura Wilson as Jan and David O’Reilly as Roger (not Derek Andrews as it says in the programme) were great fun and their emerging togetherness was strangely heart-warming as it shows you don’t have to conform to classic cool/sexy to have a successful relationship.

Stuart Reid I also liked the rather seedy DJ Vince Fontaine, played by Stuart Reid (not Jason Capewell as it says in the programme – really if you’re charging £6 for a programme the cast list should be accurate, all it needs is an insert saying at this performance the role will be played by X – it’s not even as though these were understudies) and the Teen Angel was played by X-Factor’s Rhydian Roberts, a bubble of camp glistening in white sparkles; this “guest star” role is a lot of fuss for just one song, but he certainly made it look and sound outstanding. Sophie Zucchini’s Cha-Cha was stunning, Lois Urwin’s Marty was rather lovely; and Darren John brought a lot of nerdy fun to the role of Eugene – his collapsing dancing with Nancy Hill’s Miss Lynch was really funny. So as a performance this gets an official “fabulous” from me.

Rhydian RobertsBut what of the musical itself? OK here comes the controversial bit. As a Grease-newbie, I’ve done a little research and checked the storyline of the film; and it seems to me that the story in the stage version is heavily pared down. But let’s look at what we’re shown: bad-boy and good-girl fall in love in the summer and when they are unexpectedly reunited it’s damaging for his image to be tied down with a respectable dame. She gets ridiculed; he plays the field; but she’s hopelessly devoted to him and the only way she can get him back is by acting the slut. He wouldn’t come up to her level, so she descends to his.

Sophie ZucchiniNow I don’t want you to think that Mrs C is lacking in the sense of humour department, or isn’t a party girl, because that’s not the case; in fact she will lead the conga at the annual accountancy convention. But this storyline depressed her no end. It made her want to grab Sandy by the collar and shout “where’s your self-respect?” Talking, as we were, about contextualising songs within musicals, Mrs C had always thought of “Hopelessly Devoted To You” as a sincerely romantic and rather idealistic song – and now she sees it as symptomatic of a character that just screams “Victim”. It’s rather ruined it for her, I fear, despite Carina Gillespie’s brilliant performance of it. I mentioned to Mrs C in the interval that it’s the kind of show that would attract kids to the theatre (which is a great thing) to which she agreed but thought some of the subject matter would be a little dubious. When I asked her on the way home if she would consider taking our nieces to see it she instantly said “No Way!”

Lois UrwinI definitely agree with her on this – although it didn’t affect me personally quite the same way it did her. Bizarrely, as a show that is seen as a landmark in depicting a new age of freedom for these young people in the late 1950s, in retrospect it seems to me to put back the cause of women by decades. Mrs C actually felt in the not too distant future that this show might be seen as very un-PC; in the same way that today we reflect back on The Black and White Minstrels. I was unimpressed with the aspect of the storyline that has a character fed up because she might be pregnant; and then a couple of song-and-dances later saying it’s ok because it was only “a false alarm so everything’s all right again, no need to make any lifestyle changes, phew that’s a relief, party on”. Are we missing a lesson to be learned here? Even the audience is encouraged to misbehave a bit. There’s a song number early on – “Those Magic Changes” – where the dance routine consists of three of the guys emerging in and out of their shower cubicles wearing minute towelettes and doing obscene things with loofahs, which evoked a lot of raunchy whoopings from some of the female members of the audience. If it had been the men in the audience rowdily ogling scantily clad ladies in the showers we would have been lynched.

Darren John So that’s my bittersweet experience of last night. A really first class production, superbly executed in all departments; thoroughly enjoyable until I started thinking about what the show actually says to us – its gobsmacking sexism and how it celebrates some really bad behaviour and attitudes, and then I feel a bit depressed by it.

Danny Bayne's used combIn the final curtain call Danny did a bit of a cool hair-comb and then threw said comb out into the audience to great whooping and cheers. It seemed to hover in the air for ages and then I finally realised it was heading for us. Her mind bogged down with disgust at the show’s message, Mrs C felt she would have degraded herself to catch it, so it ended up at her feet. However, I rescued it from its otherwise certain fate of being binned so it will live on as part of my theatre programme collection!