Dancing Brick presents a stage adaptation of the legendary film by Jacques Tati. An unlikely undertaking at first thought with the film’s notoriety for excessive detail, a myriad of characters, and almost no plot nor dialogue. And yet Co-Directors Valentina Ceschi and Thomas Eccleshare, with a cast of five (including Ceschi who doubles as an actor too), have created an evening’s triumph of mime and movement.
There is little plot – various people arrive in Paris at the airport, visit the Pour la Maison Paris Expo, stay in a hotel and go to a restaurant before returning to the airport. And there is little spoken dialogue – only occasional words are heard, some in French, some in English.
To start things off, Tati’s great comedic invention, Monsieur Hulot (Enoch Lwanga) enters through the audience. Dressed in his recognisable raincoat and hat, carrying an umbrella (Set & Costume Designer Michael Vale), Lwanga’s languid movements and sad reflective expression set the mood. He gamely blows up a balloon and then lets it down again.
Hulot enters the opening scene in the arrivals lounge (“Arrivee”) of a French airport. Dozens of characters come and go, arriving and departing via an escalator, criss-crossing the stage – a different hat, jacket, suitcase signifying a change in character. There are two nuns, two opposing volleyball teams, holiday makers, a beat combo, paparazzi… It is difficult to believe that this is a cast of just five actors and we shall see many of these characters again before the end of the evening. The humour within the scene is gentle rather than pratfall slapstick and the cast show off their consistently excellent mime skills. Their movement is accompanied by a background of foyer muzak, setting a light comedic tone, and a rhythm for the antics to follow.
One character stands out ahead of the crowd. Barbara (Yuyu Rau) catches the eye of Monsieur Hulot and there begins a burgeoning romance. Together they share a beautiful fantasy dance scene seemingly, and surreally, outside of their adjacent hotel rooms.
The highlight of the evening is an extended scene set in a newly opening restaurant. With non-stop action, the ensemble’s comic timing is impeccable. Characters come and go, a few running gags are followed – a missing cat, a fracas about balloons, an increasingly drunk waiter – the mayhem occasionally breaking out into quirky dance routines. Central to the activity and holding the scene together is the Maitre D’ (Abigail Dooley) who is excellently portrayed with superb characterization.
Two songs are introduced. The first by Chilly Gonzales & Pierre Grillet is beautifully sung live by Valentina Ceschi. The second by Martha Wainwright accompanies the final scene between Hulot and Barbara as they spend time in the park. The atmosphere for the first time is less zany than what has gone before, more melancholic. We realise that Barbara will soon leave and Hulot – the gentle clown – will once again be alone.
As the actors take their well-earned bows, they are joined in a curtain call by the stage management team who undoubtedly have done their bit in the wings to make happen the huge number of costume and prop changes.
Dancing Brick have created a delightful entertainment of gentle comedy maintained by the skill and indefatigable energy of this small ensemble.
“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”.