Adam Bruce, United Kingdom Critic
Bill Kenwright is continuing the trend of bringing screen to stage adaptations to theatres across the nation. In these last few months there has been a great deal of these adaptations making the rounds, with some having far more success than others. Ultimately, it all depends on whether or not the adaptation either rides on the coattails of its filmic predecessor or stands alone as an independent work. On that note, I looked forward to heading to the Leeds Grand Theatre to see which category the company’s adaptation of John Badham’s 1977 classic ‘Saturday Night Fever’ would fall into.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is set at the peak of the disco scene in New York City. We follow Tony Manero (Richard Winsor), a young man trapped in a dead end job at a local DIY store who escapes the mundanity of his life through dancing at the weekends. When he meets dancer Stephanie (Olivia Fines), who’s trying to make a life for herself in Manhattan, Tony is taken on a journey of self-discovery as he realises there’s more to life than his constant desire to escape his troubles.
This adaptation could easily have been a theatrical cash-in on the film, but thankfully, it’s far from that. Instead of a mediocre stage show aimed at catering to the film’s original fans, this adaptation is an independent production that continues to build on the legacy of the film. Director Bill Kenwright has crafted a piece that excellently places dance at the forefront of the piece, and working with choreographer Bill Deamer, evocatively brings to life the atmospheres found in not only the film, but also the temporal period of the setting. The choreography itself is characterful, stylish and dramatic, allowing the company of performers to express their characters’ emotions through movement and physicality in a truthful and organic way; this works perfectly well with Robert Stigwood and Bill Oakes’ adaptation of the original screenplay.
What makes the production truly stand apart from its filmic source material, however, is how music is used in the piece. It’s so refreshing to see the songs of the era, primarily those by the Bee Gees, actually used to aid the storytelling process and enhance the emotional depth of the piece as the narrative progresses. Indeed, Kenwright’s decision to have the Bee Gees themselves (played by Jake Byrom, James Kenneth Haughan and Danny Knott) stood aloft at the back of the stage space taps into theatre’s storytelling power; their physical presence represents their prominence in the era and how integral they were to the music scene of the time. Not only do they sing the majority of the songs, but the characters in the piece sing with them too, cementing the importance of music in their lives and adding a unique narrative depth not present in the film. Everything feels considered, tightly put together and nothing feels done for the sake of it.
Bringing to life such a lavish and well-considered piece of theatre is an exceptionally talented ensemble. Their unrelenting energy permeates throughout their execution of the characterful choreography, and as a result of their performances, there’s never a lull in energy or pace. There’s an enjoyable sense of teamwork, and it would be highly unjust to single out particular performances when the entire company is so strong. The performances are perfectly scaled for the piece and there’s plenty of dramatic truth in the unfolding action as a result, and the performers’ infectious energy and truthful portrayals win the audience over as the show unfolds.
Housing all of the action is designer Gary McCann’s set, which evocatively captures both the neon vibrance of New York’s nightclub scene to the grittier elements of its surrounding neighbourhoods; there’s a somewhat harmonious link between the juxtaposed pulsing dancefloors and wrought iron girders, representing the temporal period perfectly and establishing a dynamic play-world for the action to take pace amongst. Set pieces fly in seamlessly and transport us to various locations throughout, keeping up with the fast pace of the production when required and facilitating the action neatly amongst neon girders that keep the action focused. It’s also very refreshing to see the musicians taken into consideration, having them in the top areas of the stage space to simulate a live band in the nightclubs depicted throughout the show. Nick Richings also brings a dynamic and exciting lighting design to the proceedings, complementing McCann’s set and intensifying the atmosphere and emotional depth of the piece.
‘Saturday Night Fever’ is an enjoyable, energetic and exciting adaptation of the classic film. It doesn’t feel like a cash-in or a rip off of its source material; instead, it makes for not only a unique theatrical experience that builds on its legacy, but also for a brilliant trip to the theatre.
‘Saturday Night Fever’ is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 31st August and continues on tour. For more information, tickets and a full cast & creative list, visit https://www.kenwright.com/portfolio/saturday-night-fever/