On Mondays and Tuesdays, traditionally quiet nights, teenagers from all over Britain are lining up in droves outside the Manchester Opera House. Their attire is a little weird--polyester flares, tank tops, and fake fur bolero jackets. But hey, this is 70s night--or more specifically, Oh What a Night, a show celebrating that era--and it's time for some fun.
"A 70s revival show was the original story idea that executive producer Stuart Littlewood presented to me," says director and choreographer Kim Gavin. "I was out choreographing Take That, it was 1993, and I thought, 'That's been done. The bubble has already burst.' But Stuart persisted." Luckily so--Oh What a Night, which opened in early spring, has been a seven-shows-a-week sellout at the 1,800-seat venue.
"Stuart's idea was a Starsky & Hutch, Huggy Bear sort of thing. Something we could pack 40 classic disco hits into." But what started out as a TV-inspired gangster tale metamorphosed in development. "We actually cast the show before I wrote the plot," Gavin says. "Once I'd identified the characters I wanted, the story presented itself."
The show is of a type--two hours of song and dance wrapped around a frothy tale of nightclub shenanigans, deceit, youthful exuberance, and a coyly observed cameo of boy meets girl. The cast, however, is exceptionally strong. That Gavin selected August "Kid Creole" Darnell for the key role of club DJ and narrator is only part of the show's strength. "August started as an actor, before Kid Creole & the Coconuts ever existed. He can play anything," Gavin says. (Several others from a cast of 21, including Victoria Wilson-James, Michael Howe, and Gary Lloyd, command attention as actors, not just as dancers delivering plot devices with all the conviction of a limp handshake.)
Presentation is equally strong. The set is designed by David Shields; two periaktoi stage left and right facilitate most of the major changes, from disco interior, through New York street scene, to the club's back alley. Everything about the decor is cliche, as it should be; the club, for example, sports mauve and chrome Mylar cladding. Gavin is slightly unhappy with the periaktoi: "They're a bit slow on the changes." And this is a show that demands snappy changes: Pace is everything, but the profusion of lighting above precludes any additional flown flats as a faster alternative.
With so much disco dance action, illumination inevitably makes a big contribution. "This is not a theatre show by any means," says LD Simon Tutchener. "It's more like a concert, but I do use theatre lighting and techniques." Tutchener has worked with Gavin before, collaborating on boy bands Take That and 911, and several fashion shows between them. Tutchener is an unusual designer: He apprenticed at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama 25 years ago before jumping into rock and roll almost as soon as he graduated.
"I wanted an LD who was prepared to go retro in style but use today's technology," says Gavin. Thus Tutchener has ETC Source Fours, 2kW fresnels and Minuettes nestling alongside a dense rig of chrome PARs, Martin MAC 500s, and Molemags. "Light & Sound Design provided the system, and they've been bloody great," the LD enthuses. "When I told them I wanted to mount a ring of MACs within the 5m-diameter (16.5') circular truss, they fabricated a special mounting for me within days."
With so many songs to light, and such intensity to the prevailing beat, it would have been easy for lighting to have overwhelmed the action, but Tutchener avoids that pitfall. "There are times when you just have to sit back and let the action do the work." Nonetheless, he is ever ready to steer the audience around the stage, marking out overlapping scenes, or sharply pulling down the mood for the show's one scene of real emotional intensity. Hardest of all are the daytime scenes within the club, where he achieves that low light dinginess so typical of an empty venue, yet manages to balance light on the actors without diminishing the effect.
The supply of hardware from LSD is indicative of the touring intentions for this show, despite which integrating with house systems was always part of the plan. Thus house dimmers and a dozen 1kWs are used here, plus the Strand LP90 house desk running D54 protocol. "That mix of old and new technology is one of the reasons I chose to use Richard Bleasdale's control software. I knew I needed a dedicated board for the moving lights, which really meant two boards for everything, but control needed to be straightforward enough for anyone to operate the show."
There was, however, a problem getting the software to run both boards. "The Avo Diamond III just wasn't having it," says Tutchener. "We tried all sorts of software fixes--Bleasdale and Avolites were really supportive--but we just weren't getting anywhere." This situation forced the LD to turn down lighting Ladysmith Black Mambazo when he found himself still in Manchester days after the show had opened. "Then one afternoon I thought, 'What if I set the Avo board on a blank page when running the show program?' Simple as that. After five frustrating days of changing this and trying that, I thought, 'I wonder what would happen?' and it worked.' "
The show works, too. Like Rocky Horror aficionados, many in the audience dress the part--the last 10 minutes has all of them dancing in the aisles. Oh What a Night is expected to hit Sydney and Toronto this August and September, bringing the 70s, Manchester-style, to points abroad.
Contributing editor Steve Moles can be reached at email@example.com.