Saturday Night Fever – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Gail Schuster, August 2019
It is just over 40 years since the low budget film Saturday Night Fever was released. Originally it was planned as a way of introducing screen newcomer John Travolta to cinema audiences, ready for the more costly movie Grease which was to follow. Nobody expected it to become so popular and enduring, and it was certainly never intended to be a stage production. The score for the film, written by the Bee Gees in a French chateau in less than a week, is still the second best-selling soundtrack of all time.
Tony Manero played by the multi-talented Richard Winsor, of Casualty fame, drudges in a low paid, dead-end hardware shop job by day. When he finishes work, he goes home to his Italian American family in Brooklyn where religion, tradition and parental expectation play a large part in family life. It is only in the evenings when he can finally escape his mundane existence and go with his friends to the local club, where he shines on the dance floor. With some difficulty he manages to persuade the beautiful and accomplished Stephanie, actor Olivia Fines, to be his partner in a disco competition.
The show explores what it is like to be young, broke and trapped in 1970’s Brooklyn, and it isn’t pretty; there is misogyny, gang violence, abortion, depression, racism and hints of domestic abuse. The story of the film is followed faithfully but there is more dancing and music than in the original film. The scenes which move the story along, some of which are quite dark, are interspersed by intervals at the disco, allowing the musical to keep a lighter and upbeat feel in what is otherwise a portrayal of the despair and hopelessness of the characters’ everyday lives
The set, designed by Gary McCann, is a series of metal staircases and platforms which cleverly transform into the Manero’s family home, a bridge, the nightclub, a dance studio and Tony’s bedroom. Within this space other items are seamlessly brought in and taken out. Elements which work particularly well during the show are the Bee Gees group, or at least their lookalikes, singing throughout on one of the gantries, and a large mirror at the back of the discotheque scenes, which gives the clever illusion of a crowded disco.
McCann also designed the costumes; high-waisted trousers which wouldn’t look out of place on Simon Cowell, tight shirts and the Bee Gees satin suits. Oddly for me though, it isn’t the clothes or the music which places the action in the 70’s, but the dated dance moves.
Popular with the Leeds crowd was ‘Tragedy,’ ably delivered by Will Luckett, who plays Manero’s hapless and tragic friend Bobby C. Indeed, it is one of the delights of this production that the other characters have their own back stories, rather than being one dimensional. Also appreciated by the audience was ‘If I Can’t Have You’, sung by unlucky in love and rejected Annette, actor Natasha Firth. This is very much a musical, and there are no fewer than 17 songs, but it’s an edgy one, raising hard-hitting subjects. However, despite this, there are elements of escapism and joy, particularly before the interval, with the whole company performing ‘You Should Be Dancing’.
At the end of the evening even the Grand’s air conditioning was struggling to cool this disco inferno with the audience on their feet, dancing along with the cast, to a medley of 1970’s hits.
images: Pamela Raith