Under the direction of Emily Bolton, University College Theatre Company take us back to 1959 at Rydell High with their production of Grease. Grease is a challenging text to deal with; its 50s-tinged song and dance numbers require a great deal of energy, and its iconic characters must be played with utmost commitment. Furthermore, any slipups will be noticed, as the original production and film is so widely-known and beloved. Ultimately I believe that, despite some strengths, this production did not manage to rise to these challenges.
The show is plagued with volume issues and a lack of projection from the cast. The character of Sandy, played by Sarah Castle, is almost inaudible when delivering dialogue and is easily overwhelmed by backing vocalists and the band whilst singing. Although this is less of a problem in earlier scenes where her character is supposed to be meek, it is very unfitting in the final scene, when a confident, leather-clad Sandy should be proudly singing “You’re the One that I Want,” not half-whispering. This is particularly disappointing as, when her voice can briefly be heard, particularly in “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, her tone and vocal control is excellent. The same volume issues are present in Tzur Rochvager’s performance of “Beauty School Dropout”, and Lilli McKenzie’s performance of “Born to Hand Jive”, both of which would have been solid vocals were they more audible. Whilst the performers could project more, these issues could also have easily been addressed by giving them a microphone. It appears that the production attempts to address these volume concerns by using a mostly electronic band (including an electronic drumkit), whose volume can then be controlled. However, this merely leads to the band having a decidedly limp, flat sound, far away from the energy of the original songs – had a real drum kit been in use, it would have made a big difference.
Another issue is confidence. In the larger dance and choral numbers, performers appear lost and unsure of what to do, often coming in late in songs, fudging lyrics, missing dance steps, and looking at each other as if to say “am I doing it right?”. This is particularly an issue for a song like “We Go Together”, whose nonsense, scatty lyrics require incredibly crisp diction to be intelligible and powerful. The worst case of this, however, occurs in “Greased Lightning”, one of the show’s most iconic numbers. During the performance, Kenickie, played by Andy Nicholas, forgets some of the lyrics. As opposed to ignoring the mistake and regaining composure, he breaks character, drops his accent, starts laughing and rolling his eyes throughout the remainder of the scene. I almost think that this break of character is a purposeful attempt to get laughs, as it somehow garners the most enthusiastic round of applause from the audience. Whilst it may get a laugh, and whilst the rest of Nicholas’ performance is solid, this break of character disrupts the show’s flow and undermines its legitimacy.
Despite these criticisms, the show has various strengths. This production deals with some of Grease’s problematic features in a notable way. In “Summer Nights”, the company retain the infamous “did she put up a fight?” line, but address it by the rest of the cast stopping to respond with “wow dude, seriously?” – a subtle but intelligent choice. Furthermore, some LGBT+ representation is added with DJ Vince Fontaine, who flirts with Marty at the hand jive ball, being replaced with the boisterous, queer Violet Fontaine.
The Pink Ladies all deliver spirited performances, with Marty (Mollie Farrell) and Rizzo (Alicia McGovern) being the show’s standouts. Their numbers; “Freddy, My Love” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” are beautifully sung and capture much of the energy of the film and original stage versions. James Cowling also delivers a committed and convincing performance as Danny Zuko, and the staging for “Beauty School Dropout” (complete with cardboard clouds and a chorus of pyjama-clad angels) is excellent.
In sum, despite some solid performances, the show’s lack of volume and confidence results in a fairly limp production, far away from the energy required by the text.
University College Theatre Company‘s production of Grease ran from 14 – 17 August at The Lawler, Southbank Theatre.