Review: Saturday Night Fever. Milton Keynes Theatre

Saturday Night Fever

Milton Keynes Theatre

8th September 2022

With one of the most iconic soundtracks of all time, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ always felt as if it was born to be on the stage.  With those timeless dancefloor-fillers, slick choreography and that iconic white suit, it was guaranteed to get audiences on their feet.  First hitting the London stage in 1998 with Adam Garcia, the 1970s disco musical has seen various tours over the years and is back on the road once more, with a new adaptation from Bill Kenwright which is playing at Milton Keynes Theatre this week.

Tony Manero (Jack Wilcox) spends his days in a thankless job in a paint store, living only for the weekends where he spends time with his deadbeat friends and dances it up at the local nightclub for the adoration of the local women in an attempt to avoid facing his problems at home and his directionless future.  He sets his sights on Stephanie Mangano (Rebekah Bryant) and pursues her despite her resistance, and much to the heartbreak of Annette (Billie Hardy).  With parental pressure mounting and teenage angst creating tension among his friends, Tony throws himself into his dancing, hoping the bright lights of the glitterball will make him forget everything else.

Based on Nick Cohn’s original story and adapted for the stage by Robert Stigwood and Bill Oakes, this production of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ retains the grit of the film that previous productions have chosen to leave out, but in doing so, the show is tonally uneven as a result.  The disco sequences are entertaining, but they act as tentpoles between slow and lifeless book scenes which continually bring the show back to a crawl.  The show isn’t a musical in the strictest sense, it’s a jukebox dance show; the characters don’t sing most of the songs, which instead are performed by a Bee Gees tribute act at the top of the stage (who do perform the songs really well), while the actors dance to the music.  But in choosing not to have the characters sing their feelings (aside from three or four numbers), the show relies on the writing to convey the characters feelings and emotions, which isn’t strong enough to make the grittier material work.  It often feels more like a soap opera, and the acting doesn’t help to bring it to life either. 

The show feels a little uninteresting to look at when the characters aren’t doing their disco moves, with the set being barely more than rusted staircases framing the stage to provide entrances and exits and occasional pieces of furniture brought in.  The large mirror that acts as a backdrop to the dance sequences does help to create a more dynamic visual when it’s used, but on the whole it’s a very bare-bones production.  Costumes (by Matthew Hulme and Oscar Bains) are great and really help to sell the disco era, and the ensemble work incredibly hard, providing much-needed energy whenever they’re on, although Bill Deamer’s choreography does start to feel like it’s the same dozen steps being used on repeat.

Jack Wilcox certainly has the looks, the moves, and the tight trousers for Tony, but never really digs particularly deeply into Tony’s struggle (to be fair, he isn’t helped by the material).  Similarly, Rebekah Bryant moves brilliantly but doesn’t quite sell Stephanie’s strength, and the two of them lack chemistry when they’re not dancing.  It feels like they’re reading lines and thinking about their next steps rather than portraying Tony and Stephanie, and leaves the audience just waiting for the next ensemble number.  The rest of the principal cast all do an OK job but the characters are written as copies of each other so the actors have little chance to make an impression, although Harry Goodson-Bevan does bring some great emotion to his later scenes as Bobby and manages to make “Tragedy” a standout moment in the show.  Also the “Bee Gees” (AJ Jenks, Drew Ferry and Oliver Thomson) all sound great in their numbers and their voices work really well together.

‘Saturday Night Fever’ delivers on the dance front but falls short of becoming the more layered piece that it’s trying to be.  The songs sound great and the dancing is well-performed, but the lacking characterisation and lifeless writing do start to make you wonder if you should’ve stayed at home and just listened to that iconic soundtrack instead.

‘Saturday Night Fever’ runs at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 10th September 2022, before continuing on its UK tour until the end of November.

Runtime 2 hours 40 minutes including interval

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