Theatre Review: Save The Last Dance For Me, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

Image Source: Liverpool
Empire Theatre

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Date: June 6 2016
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

At a time when there is uncertainty about Britain’s future in the European market via the EU vote and when holiday prices can make even the simplest break seem like an expensive trip, there’s nothing better than a good trip down memory lane. Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing at times, and especially for an older generation, it’s often good to sit back and discuss the way that things used to be, back when life was so much simpler, and when you made the most of whatever you had.

It is this vibe of the “good old days” which this show, Save The Last Dance For Me, attempts to recapture, and it does so very well. People of a certain age will remember a time when a big holiday meant travelling for several hours to a bread-and-butter caravan site with one or two nearby attractions, with the odd use of a singular telephone box being your only link to life back home, and with the success of the holiday dependant on who, if anybody, that you met and befriended during your trip away. Sure, you couldn’t Tweet what you were up to each night and your memories are confined to your memory and to a couple-dozen printed photographs on an oversized camera rather than having hundreds of pics on your iPhone, but that represented the simplicity of holiday life a few decades ago; some would say that things were a lot better back then for that very reason.

And so, essentially, you have the backdrop for STLDFM. It’s the summer of 1963, and Jennifer (played by Lola Saunders of X-Factor fame) and her younger sister Marie (Elizabeth Carter), who live in Luton, are leaving their over-protective parents behind as they head to Lowestoft for the week to stay in a caravan. It’s Marie’s first trip away from her mum and dad, and she makes the most of it by exploring new things. Not least the chance to fall in love, as during a night in a club operated by a group of American soldiers who are stationed at Lowestoft, Marie meets Curtis (Jason Denton), who emphasises the importance of romance and treating a lady as a lady. Cue a blossoming relationship over the coming days, albeit with the fear that when the holiday ends, Marie and Curtis will be left apart.

Jennifer attempts to warn Marie of this, citing her past experiences as evidence and noting how some man can act with holiday romances, but Marie sees Curtis as somebody who wouldn’t be that way. Unfortunately, circumstances dictate that the loving couple do indeed end up in a position where the end of Marie’s holiday will spell the end of their romance, and things aren’t helped when Jennifer and Marie’s parents turn up unexpectedly on the last night of their break and try to bring them home. Once the two are set apart, it becomes clear that the bond between Marie and Curtis can’t be broken, but several interfering parties try to keep them separate, such as Marie’s parents, who try to keep Marie from Curtis partly due to Marie’s age (17) and partly due to Curtis’ skin colour, at a time when there remained some strong racial prejudice. As the story progresses, you are willing for a way that the holiday romance can continue – but with the odds heavily stacked against them, can there really be a happy ending?

The story is told not only through the scenes and the development of the plotlines, but also through some classic songs from this golden age of music. The title of this show – Save The Last Dance For Me – is an obvious giveaway about one of the tunes, but other great numbers which are performed during the show (many from the aforementioned bar setting in Lowestoft, which has a nightly performance by the various US soldiers), amongst them Viva Las Vegas, A Teenager In Love (it raised a smile when the audience joined in with the chorus of this song in a suitably slow tone along with some nodding heads), Be My Baby, Way Down Yonder In New Orleans and Then He Kissed Me. The songs have that wonderfully nostalgic feel, and are not only perfect choices to keep the flow of the show going between the story twists, but are occasionally very appropriate for what is happening on stage; for instance, Marie’s explanation of how her romance with Curtis began flows nicely into the opening lines for Then He Kissed Me (and if you know the song, which you probably do, you’ll know what I mean).

It is a simple story, one that I’m sure many can relate to (at least for the budding romance whilst on holiday), and it is told very well through the believable performances by Elizabeth Carter and Jason Denton. Elizabeth does a fantastic job of playing the sweet and naive Marie; her desires for love come from her heart being in the right place, and her intentions are solely for romance. Ditto for Jason as Curtis, who effectively plays the role of someone who tries to find a nice lady for brief periods of time while they are holidaying, but realises that this girl is different and wants to shed his previous image to keep this one relationship alive. The supporting cast are also very good (particularly Lola in her stage debut), but Marie and Curtis’ performances stand out the most, at least from an acting standpoint.

As for the musical renditions: almost all of them are really good, of a very high standard. The most famous songs are performed very well, but even some of the lesser-known numbers are also worth listening to as opposed to them being buffers between the big hits. In terms of the singing itself, virtually everybody does a great job; Marie brings a unique style to her musical moments, Curtis’ vocal range is very good (especially during the slower, quieter numbers), and Lola Saunders does an excellent job of demonstrating the skills which allowed her to make a big splash on The X Factor. It also doesn’t hurt that Blue member Antony Costa is part of the cast, and thus provides many musical highlights during his performances; he plays a supporting role here as Milton, but his acting, the American twang to his voice and, of course, his singing mean that he is more than capable of playing the lead role in this or another show if it were required. Not to mention that the musicians were extremely skilled, and their performances during club scenes added to the atmosphere.

The settings are simple but effective (basic layouts for the family home in Luton, the Lowestoft train station and their holiday caravan), although the back-drop for the US soldier’s bar is very realistic and colourful, and is easily the best setting that we see in the show (which may explain why much of the action takes place here). The uniforms are authentic for the soldiers, and the costumes for the remaining characters are true for the 1960s timeframe, although there are fewer wardrobe changes than I anticipated. There is good use of light comedy throughout, particularly with the range of accents and confusion over American and English terms (let’s say that some were “lost in translation”). And the show culminates with an extended finale which, if you are familiar with the music performed throughout the production, is well worth staying behind to see.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable trip down memory lane, and a heart-warming reminder of how life used to be. The story is simple and logical for the era, the acting performances are strong, the cast is talented, varied and dedicated, and the music is fantastic. The quality of the production as a whole is excellent, which is typical of those produced by Bill Kenwright. If you are of an older generation and you went on holidays similar to the one that Jennifer and Marie venture on here, you will love this show, but even if you’re younger and this show is your first taste of life in the 1960s, you will still have a great time; from beginning to end, Save The Last Dance For Me is a nostalgic musical treat, one that I would definitely recommend that you go and see.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10 – Excellent