Saturday Night Fever at the New Wimbledon Theatre: ‘no more disco than Classic FM’
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews this new production of Saturday Night Fever and asks whether or not this show should be played for modern audiences.
Winter is coming, and for London students new and old that can only mean one thing: Fresher’s Flu. The chorus of coughing and sneezing in lecture theatres and the inevitable bout of illness that mars the freedom of being at university will soon strike us all. As we all lie in bed with lemsip, we’ll put our hands to our foreheads and declare we have a fever, just like our parents used to do. Saturday Night Fever is, likewise, an energy-draining production with no apparent cure. Starting at the New Wimbledon Theatre before going on a nationwide tour, it is surprising this dated and at times offensive show has been allowed to be produced. A brief tonic is to be found in the young cast of the show, but this rushed and clammy production is no more disco than Classic FM.
The original film version of Saturday Night Fever graced the screens in 1977, depicting young Tony Manero’s love of the disco scene and getting with women. The club of choice is the 2001 Odyssey, where Tony and his 1970s gang of lads go to dance each Saturday. Once there, women fawn over Tony, but it is the elusive and independent Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr) who has the dance moves to steal his heart and the two enter a dance contest. With a soundtrack including many disco songs by the Bee Gees, this sounds like a harmless jukebox musical that offers a series of well-known songs worth dancing in your seats to.
Yet this is not the case. Jokes about bisexuality, abortion and racism are littered throughout the show. Tony gets annoyed at Stephanie when he learns she has had other men in her life despite his self-professed status as a womaniser. ‘Did you f*ck her?’, a friend asks. Tony’s brother has left the priesthood due to the difficulties of being celibate, and the speeches the two exchange about the topic clawingly imply a greater significance that the writing can achieve. In an almost laughable moment of faux sincerity, Frank Junior (Marios Nicolaides), gives his brother Tony his now-redundant dog collar. Bobby C (Raphael Pace) has gotten his Catholic girlfriend pregnant but his asking every character whether or not they think his partner should get an abortion becomes ridiculous and annoying. Add to this the ever-changing scenery that switches between Tony’s troubled home, his workplace, a diner, a subway and (eventually) the 2001 Odyssey, and what emerges is a show with no sense of pace or drive towards the musical numbers that are meant to be the appeal of this production.
It becomes clear early on this is a rushed production. Winsor tries hard as the lead but his frequent forgetting of steps forms an ironic and annoying contrast to his character’s status as the best dancer in Brooklyn. When he gives the trophy and prize money to the Puerto Rican couple for dancing better than him, believing the judge’s decision to give himself and Stephanie the prize was racially motivated, he’s right, they were better. Maybe first-night nerves got the better of him, but if this Tony is meant to be the king of disco, then much more preparation is needed to make his moves as slick as his hairstyle.
Winsor’s blunders are exaggerated by a talented cast. The majority of songs are sung by Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull as the Bee Gees, and they are superb. Anna Campkin plays Annette’s unrequited love for Tony at a perfect pitch, though to see a female character so in love with someone so undeserving nowadays is disappointing. Too many to name, all of the background dancers are superb, though slight errors throughout the night once more revealed the lack of rehearsal for this show. The obvious standout, however, is Parr as Stephanie, her solo ‘What Kind of Fool’ showing a beautiful singing voice that compliments stronger dancing. Hers is the fever worth catching.
The target demographic of Saturday Night Fever is clearly those for whom this disco dream was once a reality. It is unlikely this show will continue to grace stages as its now-dubious sexual politics become almost insulting. No less, if it is to survive then productions must be tighter and more energetic than this, with a forward momentum that makes you want to get off your chair and onto the dancefloor. ‘What do you see?’, one character asks Tony. ‘A disco’, he replies. It seems the fever has gone to Tony’s head.
Saturday Night Fever will play at the New Wimbledon Theatre until the 8thSeptember, 2018, before beginning a UK tour.