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Review: Saturday Night Fever at Liverpool Empire ***

Saturday Night Fever turned a strutting John Travolta in to an international star – and took disco off the dancefloor to set it centre stage.

With its irrepressible Bee Gees’ soundtrack, its grittily-realised themes of aspiration and desperation, and its iconic dance moves – executed in THAT white suit, 40 years on it remains a potent and powerful cinematic experience.

The film was translated to the stage in 1998, smoothing out a few of its rougher edges while maintaining the general storyline that swirls around its disco dancing zero-turned-hero Tony Manero, a disaffected paint mixer by day and dancefloor king by night.

Stepping in to Travolta’s substantial shoes is never going to be easy.

The job in this new touring production from Bill Kenwright falls to Richard Winsor who makes for a fresh-faced, almost puppyish, Tony. He reminds me of Joe McFadden, but with superior dancing skills (sorry Joe!) to the 2017 Strictly champion.

The classically-trained Winsor played the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s superlative male Swan Lake here at the Empire in 2011.

He’s certainly got all the moves in this Bill Deamer-choreographed production, leading a crack ensemble of disco aficionados from the front like Johnny Castle in the closing scene of Dirty Dancing.

Richard Winsor as Tony Manero. Photos by Pamela Raith Photography

In fact, the big disco numbers are a masterclass in precision, every twist of a leg or point of a finger in perfect unison.

But. But. Churlish as it sounds, Winsor is simply too clean-cut and unthreatening, and the dance numbers too precise and polished.

The crisp choreography and a boyish Manero add up to a decidedly sanitised Saturday Night that, dare I say it, might actually benefit from being taken out of the club and roughed up a bit in the alley round the back!

Visually, Kenwright has certainly created a handsome-looking new production.

Gary McCann’s versatile set, framed by three giant illuminated rectangular arches, is at its best when it becomes a giant disco (2001 Odyssey) with the iconic coloured checkerboard dancefloor visible in a well-placed giant mirror and the disco feel augmented by glitter balls placed strategically around the auditorium.

Saturday Night Fever. Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

The Liverpool director/producer has also introduced a nifty musical conceit – having the majority of the number sung not by the main cast but by the show’s own ‘Bee Gees’ (Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull) who deliver impressive close harmony renditions of Night Fever, Tragedy, Stayin’ Alive and How Deep Is Your Love among other classics.

However, they’re so good that when the other character do sing – Anna Campkin’s Annette and Raphael Pace as Bobbie C – it feels like a rather awkward and unequal mismatch of voices.

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