“if the onstage passion isn’t quite ‘electrifying’, the overall presentation is.”
Picture the scene in a cold, forbidding producers’ office. You’re pitching a musical. “What’s the plot?” they ask. Well; it’s boy meets girl, boy and girl indulge in a bit of ‘summer loving’ on holiday, boy spurns girl in the face of peer pressure back at school. Girl sees him for the shallow guy he is, so loses interest anyway. For some inexplicable reason she then decides that she wants him after all (teenagers, eh?). So, she changes her image, trashes what’s left of her endearing and intelligent personality, and dresses provocatively to entice this somewhat dumb and superficial guy. And – Hey Presto! They go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.
If you haven’t already been shown the door, you might just get to throw in that you think a two-thousand-seater West End theatre is the perfect venue. Preposterous. So maybe you should start the pitch with the title. When “Grease” was released for the cinema in 1978 it became the highest grossing musical film ever at the time. “Grease” was, and still is, the word, as the title song informs us. The New York Times called it “terrific fun”. Four and a half decades later that description still applies.
The current revival at London’s Dominion Theatre harks back more to the original musical which preceded the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John blockbuster, and which ran on Broadway for eight years until 1980. It’s London debut starred Richard Gere. But the familiarity is still there, and everything we simultaneously love and lambast is bursting at the seams in Nikolai Foster’s sumptuous production. There is a glorious mix of silliness and surreality, bubble-gum and bravado. No matter that the storyline is imperceptible to the point that the opening bars heralding each song are a welcome respite from the banality of the dialogue.
It is within the musical numbers that the heart of the show beats fiercely. There are a couple of additions to the set list, and a couple restored from the original, though these feel inconsequential when up against the wealth of crowd pleasers. Foster bravely doesn’t always play to the crowd, however, but instead injects a freshness that puts a new slant on some of Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s compositions. Highlights include Jocasta Almgill’s biting rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” or Olivia Moore’s poignant ”Hopelessly Devoted to You” during which she decides she no longer belongs on the side-lines.
Moore’s Sandy does flirt with feistiness, but the character cannot escape the constraints of the script. Even in the seventies one must have wondered why she submits to such gender stereotypical peer pressure; and the question certainly looms larger today. In fact, there are so many wrong messages bouncing off the walls of the auditorium. For the most part they are drowned out by the infectious rhythms of the music and the gusto of the performances, driven by the sheer power of Arlene Phillips’ choreography.
There is little to be gained from looking for nuance or, indeed, emotional punch. We don’t feel the ‘multiplying chills’ about which Dan Partridge, as Danny Zuko, faultlessly sings. But if the onstage passion isn’t quite ‘electrifying’, the overall presentation is. As the closing number suggests: “that’s the way it should be”. Or rather “shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom”.
“Bennett’s wonderfully crafted throwaway lines pepper the text”
Almost fifty years on from Peter Nichols’ “The National Health” – a black comedy with tragic overtones that focuses on the appalling conditions in an under-funded national health hospital – Alan Bennett’s “Allelujah!” is its natural heir. Set in the geriatric ward of a doomed Yorkshire hospital, Bennett’s play echoes the themes but with a sharp, contemporary bite and with more humour that cushions the inherent and inevitable diatribes that come with the subject matter. Thankfully, for the most part, the politics are pushed backstage: the play’s the thing – and this is pure entertainment from start to finish. There is a definite television sitcom feel to the production; a less whimsical ‘Green Wing’ with shades of the surrealism of Dennis Potter’s ‘The Singing Detective’. It is a potent combination.
The ‘Beth’ (short for Bethlehem), an old-fashioned cradle-to-grave hospital on the edge of the Pennines, is threatened with closure as part of the NHS efficiency drive. Meanwhile a documentary crew is brought onto the wards to capture its fight for survival. But, resorting to some underhand methods, they also uncover some of the darker methods used to combat the constant struggle to free up beds for newcomers. Under Nicholas Hytner’s acute direction the comedy and the poignancy are never at odds with each other. Hytner is well attuned to Bennett’s ability to switch from humour to pathos in a whisper. The biggest laughs hail from some of the cruellest dialogue. Bennett’s wonderfully crafted throwaway lines pepper the text, in which one of the elderly patients, reacting to the news that another has passed away, describes it as “very rude – didn’t he realise there was a queue”.
There is no such discourtesy as the twenty-five strong cast queue up to deliver their fine performances. Here democracy rules, although there are some stand outs. Deborah Findlay gives a wonderful turn as the ward sister who singlehandedly and criminally ensures that the hospital’s turnover of patients meets its targets. Jeff Rawle as the bigoted, lung-shredded ex-miner exhales a corrosive mix of insult and affection, especially towards his ministerial son (Samuel Barnett) who, by slightly implausible coincidence, has been sent up from Whitehall as the key facilitator in closing down the hospital. Peter Forbes lends a balanced self-important, self-mocking charm to his chairman of the hospital trust, and Sacha Dhawan’s character of the young Dr Valentine lays bare the more contemporary themes in our post-Windrush climate, and post-Saville era where “bedside manners borders on interference”.
Yet there is still a feeling of nostalgia enhanced by the scenes being punctuated with dreamlike sequences of song and dance, brilliantly choreographed by Arlene Phillips, as the patients form a choir of angelic voices to reclaim a long-forgotten past amid the classic songs of their youth. You almost sense that they are being furtively drip fed some sort of hallucinogen alongside the normal daily medication.
Only in the final scenes when, like the hospital itself, the fourth wall is pulled down do we get a hint that the show, in part, is a vehicle for Bennett’s bugbears. Not just about the NHS, but modern British society in general. Bennett makes no attempt to hide his own voice as Dhawan’s Dr Valentine, facing deportation, addresses the audience directly and proclaims, “Open your arms, England, before it’s too late”. This is the only slightly preachy moment in an otherwise slick, powerful and magical commentary on society. But at least it was saved for the end. The rest is a pure delight: a real tonic.