Friday, 13 January 2017

Dancin' Thru The Dark (1990)

"Oh yeah, anyone can do it. That's why he's up on the stage with all the coloured spotlights on him and we're down on the dancefloor, dancin' thru the dark with all the other no marks"

Liverpudlian playwright Willy Russell adapts his own 1978 play Stags and Hens for the big screen with Dancin' Thru the Dark, expanding it significantly. As a theatre piece, Stags and Hens was set mainly in the ladies and gents loo's of a trashy Liverpool disco where both Linda and Dave have elected to hold their hen and stag parties ahead of their wedding the following day. The bride however, is experiencing some doubts made worse by the arrival of old flame, the musician Peter, and each party is determined to have their say about this turn of events. 

As a film, Dancin' Thru the Dark allows the action to open out more which benefits the characters somewhat, giving them a greater backstory. It also helps that the film is shot in authentic Liverpool locations too, allowing for a great flavour of the city Russell writes about, and boasts a fine cast including Con O'Neill as Peter, returning to his roots with a band on the brink of stardom, and Claire Hackett as Linda, the bride who wonders if she's about to make a big mistake.  Skelmersdale born O'Neill, pretty much an adopted son of Liverpool (and I was fortunate enough to see him play Frank at Liverpool Playhouse's revival of Russell's Educating Rita about eighteen months back) thanks to starting his career with the Everyman Youth Theatre, is brilliant as Peter, looking the part of the late '80s pop star and singing Russell's catchy compositions (think Deacon Blue or Wet Wet Wet) himself, whilst Hackett is suitably affecting as Linda, a girl who dares to dream of a life outside of domestic drudgery at just 21 and a world beyond the River Mersey. The rest of the cast is made up of several familiar faces to anyone who has enjoyed a soap opera or Northern based drama in the last thirty years, with Julia Deakin perhaps being the only performer whose career has taken a somewhat unexpected ascent since this was filmed thanks to her association with the likes of Simon Pegg and Ben Wheatley.

Like Russell's other, more famous stage-to-screen transitions the aforementioned Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, Dancin' Thru the Dark explores the same themes of a narrow-minded, small town mentality suffocating dreams and potential. Liverpool is rightly depicted as a disenfranchised, post industrial Northern town, and the character of its people is depicted, equally corrected, as cynical in nature. Success is something that happens elsewhere ('that London' for example) and in Liverpool there's more kudos to never having really tried to break out from the norm. This is best exemplified by the character of Eddy (Mark Womack) and his attitude towards anything remotely different or talented. Eddy is the traditional small town bully who, through sheer aggression and pigheaded ignorance, has made his way to the leader of the pack, bending his fellow stags to his will. According to Eddy he could have been in a band, just like Peter, but what's the point in that? The message is simple, don't get ideas above your station and don't stand out from the crowd. Doing so will only see you labelled 'a poof' or some kind of show off. It's no mistake that Russell opens his film with a cameo for himself as 'Sourface' a dour, pessimistic barfly who demands Peter's band play something in exchange for the directions to their gig, only to be embarrassed when the band smash it with their impromptu performance - it's clear that Eddy will become 'Sourface' in a couple of decades time. It's Russell at his best and it always bemuses me that, as a writer, he's accused of a certain sentimentality towards his hometown when he is so easily critical of much of its nature. For me, or indeed anyone who is familiar with, or calls Liverpool home, this is an insightful, unabashed and accurate portrait of the city.

Equally accurate is the depiction of clubbing in the late '80s and early '90s, with the all-too familiar Bransky's run by a delightfully cameoing Colin Welland. It's a real trip down memory lane for me this, not that I was old enough to be clubbing in 1990, but because it just looks and feels like it was watching my sister and her mates getting ready for a night out; the girls in their clippy-cloppy high heels and the boys in their Burton's suits. Let me tell you I was rather disappointed that, when I reached an age to go out drinking, no one wore suits any more.  This really captures the fashions and attitudes of that period in a way that surely only old episodes of The Hitman and Her would provide now. Overall, Dancin' Thru the Dark is a little lighter on laughs than you might expect, but it nails the voice of Liverpool really well and offers up a romantic narrative sure to please anyone who likes a good soppy '80s or '90s teen(ish) celluloid love story.

A couple of appearances of note; look out for a very early appearance from This Is England's Stephen Graham as one of the kids playing football in the park as the stags make their way to Bransky's nightclub. And look out for the graffiti on the gents wall that bears the legend 'Fuck me! Fuck me 'til I fart!' too. These now infamous words were said to have been spoken by a TV celebrity of the day, captured in a delicate position with a crewmember thanks to a mic having been left on. (Google it!) Lastly, look out for Strictly's Bruno Tonioli's credit as the film's choreographer.

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