It’s been 40 years since the “gritty musical drama” Saturday Night Fever hit UK cinema screens. The film told the story of a working-class ladies man Tony Manero, who escapes the harsh realities of life in Brooklyn by strutting his stuff at the local discotheque. When a dance contest is launched with a $1000 prize, Tony sees this as his way out of his grim existence, and into the disco-dancing hall of fame. The film of course made a huge star out of John Travolta, who just a year later took on his role as teenager Danny Zuko in Grease (despite being 23 years old at the time). The film also helped propel a three-man harmony band called the Bee Gees to stardom, as they were commissioned to produce a number of tracks as a backdrop to the film. The soundtrack went on to become one of the best-selling of all time.
When the film was adapted for the West End stage back in 1998, it became more of a musical than a drama with music, which toned down some of the hard-hitting and adult themed subjects for a more family-friendly show. And in this latest adaptation produced and directed by Bill Kenwright, at the newly rebranded Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, we are promised even more music and dancing.
Does it deliver? Absolutely. This adaptation manages to mix fun up-beat music numbers with drama, and those gritty subjects of racism, unemployment, domestic violence, religion, abortion, rape and suicide are all still addressed. At times the juxtaposition jars slightly but on the whole the transition between moody and disco works well.
Formerly of the Matthew Bourne dance company, and more recently of Casualty, classically trained Richard Winsor takes on the role of Tony Manero. It’s a big ask to step into Travolta’s dancing shoes and iconic white three-piece suit and Winsor manages the role reasonably well, with the requisite swagger and arrogance. He looks a little unsure leading the big group dances, and seems to be slightly behind the beat on occasion, but when he is dancing solo or with new dance partner Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr) his classical dance training shows and allows him to shine.
As Tony’s best friend Bobbie C, Raphael Pace gets the emotional scenes as he struggles with his relationship and the decisions he has to make. For those who don’t know the film, it takes a dark turn in the second half and Bobbie C gets a solo of “Tragedy” to try and convey his inner turmoil. It’s a little hard to take this seriously though as the Steps dance moves whirl through my head. Anna Campkin puts in a great performance as Annette, although her own reckless choices and the implications are rather glossed over in this adaptation in order to balance the heavy drama with the glitter and sparkle of a 70s disco.
The choreography by Bill Deamer stays true to the era, including plenty of finger-pointing moments – and the discotheque set with it’s mirrors and flashing dancefloor is a joy. For the first time, this adaptation has the Bee Gees as part of the performance rather than as a soundtrack, crooning from above, and Ed Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull give a flawless performance as the Gibb brothers. Occasionally their harmonies drown out the cast’s solo numbers but this is a show based more on choreography than vocal performances and it lends a feeling of the actors belting out a tune to a background soundtrack. Which we’ve all done. The ensemble dance pieces are excellent, with some incredible dancers forming part of the cast.
Whilst the focus on music and dancing sometimes means that we lose the gritty story that is the backbone of the show, the audience are enthralled. Winsor clearly has a strong fanbase judging by the whoops and whistles when he makes onset outfit changes, particularly when donning that white suit.
I didn’t expect to be wowed by this show to be honest, yet I was pleasantly surprised. And when the cast return for a final disco medley, I’m up on my feet with the rest of the audience. And I find myself walking with a Tony Manero strut all the way home, to an internal Bee Gees soundtrack. I could indeed be dancing.
Saturday Night Fever is in Birmingham at the Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 29th September, and then tours the UK until February 2019. Tickets can be purchased here
*I was invited to attend this press event by The Alexandra Theatre, however this doesn’t affect my opinion of the show, and an honest review will be given in all cases.
**All photos are by Pamela Raith and are used with permission of the Alexandra Theatre