Did 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.
I’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.
You 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.
This 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.
Some 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!)
The 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.
Danny 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.
Naomi 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.
All 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.