Review: Saturday Night Fever at the Orchard Theatre

There can be few movies more iconic than Saturday Night Fever. Its place in popular culture is so established that even if you’ve never seen the film, you almost certainly still know the music and the dance moves, and you’ve probably performed some version of the latter to the former, most likely at a school disco or cheesy student club night. You also, I’d guess, know that John Travolta is Tony Manero, and like most people, you can’t quite imagine anyone else filling his shiny shoes and sharp white suit.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Tony is a young man in 1970s Brooklyn with little to look forward to in life; he still lives at home with his disappointed and unhappily married parents, and works during the week in a local paint store, with no obvious prospect of moving up in the world despite being very good at his job. The one bright spot on the horizon is Saturday nights at local disco 2001 Odyssey, where Tony can do what he loves: dance. When the club announces an upcoming dance contest, he teams up with new love interest Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr) – funnily enough, the one woman in town who doesn’t want to sleep with him – to claim the prize, and with it her heart.

So given the tough act he has to follow, how does Richard Winsor fare in Bill Kenwright’s stage version? Actually, not bad. He’s got the classic moves and Manero swagger down, and leads the ensemble dance numbers under the 2001 Odyssey mirrorball with the cool confidence of a man who knows all eyes – particularly the female ones – are on him. For Act 1, that’s pretty much all the plot requires, but as events take a darker turn in Act 2 Winsor also shows us glimpses of the vulnerability behind the arrogance, and finally gives us a reason to root for Tony despite his many flaws.

This change in tone is reflected in the show’s other big star attraction: the soundtrack. While Act 1 packs in the legendary disco hits, from Stayin’ Alive to You Should Be Dancing, after the interval the pace slows, with numbers including Too Much Heaven and How Deep Is Your Love (and also Tragedy, during which everyone of a certain age could be seen physically restraining themselves from launching into the Steps dance routine). Almost all the musical numbers are performed by the show’s very own – and very convincing – Bee Gees, Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull, but every now and again a key character breaks into their own solo, some of which fit what’s happening in the story better than others. Though all the songs are well performed, this lack of consistency in the show’s format jars somewhat, and feels like an unnecessarily confusing distraction.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

There’s no doubt, however, that the production succeeds 100% in capturing the spirit of disco – from Bill Deamer’s irresistible choreography to Nick Richings’ lighting design and Gary McCann’s set and costumes, which between them bring Odyssey 2001 vividly to life both on stage and off. Because the songs stand alone as hits in their own right, they take centre stage throughout; it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and energy of the group numbers, or to feel a sudden urge to get out on the dance floor yourself. The show does have its flaws, and it might not be the most memorable start to the theatre-going year, but that doesn’t mean you won’t head home with a skip in your step, all the same.

Saturday Night Fever is at the Orchard Theatre until 12th January, then continues on tour.

Review: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Orchard Theatre

If there was ever a movie crying out to be turned into a musical, it’s 1994 Aussie hit, Priscilla. The addition of disco classics to this fabulously flamboyant tale of three friends on a road trip through the desert feels like the most natural thing in the world, and the resulting show is an infectiously joyful cocktail, which is guaranteed to brighten up even the dreariest Monday.

Tick (a.k.a. Mitzi), a disillusioned drag queen, invites his friends Adam (a.k.a. Felicia) and Bernadette (formerly Ralph) to join him in a new act in Alice Springs, but doesn’t tell them he has his own reason for going. So, hopping aboard their very own party bus, Priscilla, the three set off from Sydney on a journey of self-discovery that will bring arguments, revelations and a bucketload of innuendo.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas & Darren Bell
Photo credit: Paul Coltas & Darren Bell

Blue’s Duncan James seems totally at ease with both his male and female personas, not to mention an increasingly outrageous wardrobe, and gives a strong performance as the conflicted Tick. He’s joined by Simon Green, as Bernadette, a sophisticated lady who just happens to have once been a man, and who lives in fear that her best days – and her chances of finding Mr Right – are behind her. Her scathing one-liners are usually directed at Felicia, played by a deliciously camp Adam Bailey. Unlike Tick, he’s completely comfortable with who he is, and demonstrates it by being fabulously over the top, but not always showing the sensitivity to others that he expects for himself.

This show is a lot more just its stars, though, and has three unsung heroes (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the Divas. With the main characters’ act consisting of them lip syncing to pop songs, someone has to provide the soundtrack, and Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort deliver a sensational performance. (This is all the more impressive considering they’re suspended from the roof by wires for most of the show.) There’s a brilliantly unhinged turn from Julie Yammanee as Cynthia, Philip Childs is a loveable hero as Bob – and the whole cast exude so much energy throughout that it’s impossible to resist the urge to get up and join in for the final medley.

And while we’re talking about unsung heroes, a quick word for the incredible wardrobe department, led by Suzanne Runciman. The outfits are not only visually stunning but also seemingly limitless; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show with so many lightning-fast costume changes, and yet there’s not a wig out of place.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas & Darren Bell
Photo credit: Paul Coltas & Darren Bell

Priscilla is a camp extravaganza – quirky, cheeky and endlessly entertaining, with a fantastic disco soundtrack featuring the likes of I Will Survive, Venus and Hot Stuff. But the show’s not just about glitterballs and glamour; it has a serious point to make too about the importance of both accepting ourselves for who we are, and allowing others to be themselves too.

Bit cheesy? Absolutely. But when you’re having this much fun, who cares…

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 30th April.