Theatre Review: Saturday Night Fever, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

Image Source: Liverpool Echo

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy Drama
Date: September 12 2018
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool

Saturday Night Fever has danced its way into Liverpool’s Empire Theatre. While I was familiar with the movie, I can’t honestly say I was looking forward to seeing this production, due to the mature themes from the film that, based on previous reviews, would take a greater focus than the music and dance. But I was wrong, and pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this show.

In front of an audience with several local stars on hand, the show adheres to the plot of the film for the most part. We begin with a major dance routine that introduces us to Tony Manero (Richard Winsor), an Italian-American living with his family who has a simple job in a hardware store by day, but by night transforms into a flashy, attractive and highly-skilled disco dancer. He oozes sex appeal, which catches the eye of Annette (Anna Campkin) who simply repeatedly tells him that she likes to watch him dance and walk. However, with a major dance competition coming up at the local 2001 Odyssey disco club, the cock-sure Tony wishes to instead dance with Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr), a somewhat upper-class lady who refuses any and all of Tony’s advances outside of simply dancing.

In the meantime, we meet Tony’s family (in particular his father Frank, Philip Aiden, who is a nasty piece of work), Tony’s friends (one of whom is Bobbie C, Raphael Pace, who repeatedly asks for advice on whether he can convince his now-pregnant girlfriend to get an abortion rather than him having to marry her), as well as other locals from the disco and a number of street thugs representing gangs that demonstrate the racial divide and subsequent hatred between the clashing cultures. There are three other notable performers, but I’ll address them shortly.

As the tale goes on, there are numerous strands to keep an eye on, and while the tone is largely comedic, there are moments of drama and real emotion, particularly in the final third. It’s intriguing to see how Annette’s character evolves, and it’s also noteworthy to see how the arrogance oozed by Tony early on fades more and more as the show progresses, despite his dancing receiving more and more acclaim. Add to that the reappearance of his brother Frank Junior (Marios Nicolaides), who wishes to leave the priesthood much to the disgust of his parents, and the fall-out of Bobbie’s friends repeatedly ignoring his pleas for advice, and there is plenty to deal with here, as well as there being several aspects to the story that are wrapped up as we near the climax.

The story is fairly engaging, though if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll realise that the original film dealt with the likes of drugs, racial tension and sexual violence in a grittier manner. That is perfectly understandable, and not something that I disagree with. Yes, these aspects are occasionally referred to, and there are plenty of swearing and at times strong sexual innuendos, but it will not shock and (aside from a few side insults) offend in the manner that Saturday Night Fever did upon its release in the 1970s. I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is family-friendly, but it’s not a show that will leave a bad taste in your mouth from a story standpoint (at least if the person that you’re sitting next to doesn’t provide running commentary, which I had for much of my viewing).

Now let’s get to the main reason why I really enjoyed this performance: the music and dancing. I mentioned three additional characters; though they never interact with the central characters and stand in the background on an elevated part of the set, Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull serve as The Bee Gees in singing their greatest hits (the group of course provided the soundtrack for the movie), as well as pulling off other disco hits, and they do so spectacularly. There’s one fantastic vocal performance after another, and though Richard Winsor and his supporting cast are very good, it is the singing trio that truly impressed me.

Of course, enhancing the singing are the dance routines, which are awesome, even to someone who isn’t a big fan of dance. The tone is set right from the beginning with an excellent group dance backed up by Stayin’ Alive. The hits keep on coming, occasionally performed in part by the cast (Bobbie sings Tragedy, while Annette sings Too Much Heaven), and often with Tony leading one hell of a dance party. Disco Inferno, If I Can’t Have You, You Should Be Dancing, Jive Talkin’, More Than A Woman and How Deep Is Your Love are the other musical highlights; I guarantee you will come away humming Bee Gees songs and getting up their albums on your iPod.

Fittingly, the best moment of all comes when the entire troupe dance like their lives depend on it to a first-class rendition of Night Fever, enhanced further by the on-stage dancefloor emitting all sorts of colours while a colourful dance spotlight travels around the auditorium with disco balls adding extra glam and glitter. Indeed, the initial Night Fever performance, with all of these elements thrown in, is a sight to behold; it feels like you are watching something truly special, and is one of the best things I have seen in any theatre all year.

Surpassing my expectations, then, Saturday Night Fever was a real treat, and a theatre experience I won’t forget in a hurry. If you loved the film, and especially if you loved the Bee Gees, then you will love this show.

Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding