Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, March 7th)

How deep your love is for the new touring production of Saturday Night Fever depends on whether you preferred the original X-rated film from 1977 or the family-friendly heavily edited version produced for a Grease generation.

The fact that director Ryan McBryde has opted for the former is a dangerous and challenging choice that pays off big time. Audiences who go along expecting to be on their feet dancing to Bee Gees hits every five minutes are in for a shock.

This tremendous, in your face, heart-wrenching take on the musical started out at the English Theatre Frankfurt before transferring to the UK for this tour, which opened at the Theatre Royal, Bath. The adaptation by Robert Stigwood and Bill Oakes refuses to pull punches and is all the better for it – this is powerful, emotive and dramatic stuff indeed.

If the original 1998 screen to stage transfer felt more like a lightweight Bee Gees juke box show lacking in tension and with the plot playing second fiddle to the music, then this more than makes up for it, diving headlong into the gritty reality of 1970s New York life, with its hero working in a dead-end job and many people living bleak and hopeless lives against a backdrop of struggling to make ends meet, loss of faith, racial conflict, family flare-ups and street violence.

The play follows the film closely, with Andrew Wright’s choreography mirroring many of the original iconic dance moves yet also developing them effectively. There’s an electrifying moment when the steps being danced by the two leads are taken up by others around them with a teeth-clenching fierce determination.The design is deceptively simple, much of the time a fairly plain and dark set brought to life only by the bright lights of the disco, offering a fantasy refuge for the deadbeat and desperate.

Danny Bayne is a revelation as Tony Manero, the emotionally charged teenager living a dreary life but transformed into a living legend on the dancefloor. He was good in the candy floss Grease stage production (he came to fame when he won TV’s Grease is the Word), but is magnificent here, with more demands made on him in the drama and dance departments, which he handles effortlessly.

He is well-matched by Naomi Slights, reprising her Frankfurt role of Stephanie, the girl with style who wins Tony’s heart artistically and emotionally. Alex Lodge, Rory Phelan and Llandyll Gove are engaging as his macho mates, with an immaturity ill-preparing them for adult life ahead of them; Bethany Linsdell is excellent as Tony’s would-be girlfriend and ex-dance partner; Matthew Quinn gets to the heart of Tony’s brother, Frank, a priest plagued by doubts; and CiCi Howells is dynamic as the club singer.

Many of the cast are making their professional debuts in this show and it is exciting to see them – and refreshing to know they have been given such a great opportunity to show off their talents rather than being thrown into a chorus line for several seasons. There are plenty of names to keep an eye on in the future. Most performers are not only required to act and dance their socks off, but also to play a variety of instruments which works better than one might have expected.

The classic Bee Gees songs are given fresh and deeper meaning – there is no danger of the lyrics being lost along the way. The use of the songs is perfect with none merely there to prop up a sagging moment and musical director Mike Turnbull (who also plays DJ Monty) gets the very best from all performers.  Night Fever, Disco Inferno and You Should Be Dancing of course provide the perfect setting for the energetic disco dancing but the Gibbs brothers’ Immortality and Tragedy are added to the score as dramatic and searing ballads, Jive Talkin’ becomes a song of youthful discontent, and Stayin’ Alive is a cry of hope from despairing hearts. Often the depth of the words in the context of the drama provides tough food for thought and is a worthy evaluation of the Bee Gees’ skill in itself.

This fine production is certainly not one for the easily-pleased bubblegum masses looking for the light and fluffy and is almost a protest against those musicals that dump plot in favour of churned out hit songs with no real purpose. It is a Saturday Night Fever that raises the temperature and raises the bar for any who may dare to follow in its wake.