'Grease' review — this fitfully gritty take on the beloved musical still gives you chills

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

This seems to be the summer of reinvented classic musicals, from the moody Oklahoma! at the Young Vic to a revamped Legally Blonde at Regent’s Park Open Air. In that vein, Nikolai Foster dishes up his “gritty” Grease, which began Leicester Curve, toured the UK and is now playing in the West End. But is this the one that audiences want?

Yes and no. Foster has gone back to Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s original stage musical version, rather than the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John 50s nostalgia-fest movie. It definitely feels rawer: working-class, disaffected, lust-crazed kids bucking against authority, in the mean streets of Chicago instead of sunny California. There are songs you won’t recognise from the film, like an expressive rock solo for Dan Partridge’s restless Danny Zuko, “How Big I’m Gonna Be”.

But you come to realise the wisdom of the movie adaptation in narrative terms. The Danny/Sandy romance really doesn’t feature that much here, meaning big numbers like “Hopelessly Devoted to You” – though well sung by Olivia Moore – come out of nowhere. Sandy’s climactic sex-kitten transformation is particularly inexplicable, since she’s vigorously defended her (admittedly goody-two-shoes) life choices in previous scenes.

Oddly, their dynamic is also doubled up by Danny’s push-pull relationship with perky cheerleader Patty Simcox, who likewise challenges him to do more with his life than just hang out with his gang, the Burger Palace Boys. She lingers as another romantic prospect, thanks to the charged scenes between Partridge and the vivid Jessica Croll. Yet Patty has more growth than Danny – who’s basically given a free pass for his groping, lying and vacillating.

But if this Grease loses the thread of its boy-meets-girl plot, it’s much more successful as a paean to teen friendships. From the eager back and forth of the indelible “Summer Nights” to the slumber parties and school dances, these are recognisably kids who take solace in and want to fit in with their peers, while also figuring out who they might become after high school. “We Go Together” is a jubilant ensemble triumph.

And that ensemble features plenty of winning turns. Mary Moore and Noah Harrison are endearing in the playful duet “Mooning”, Jake Reynolds charms when picking out chords for “These Magic Changes”, Katie Lee impresses in the energetic hand jive competition, and Paul French brings a dangerous edge to the testosterone-fuelled Kenickie.

Jocasta Almgill is the clear standout though, showing the searing pain and desperation behind Rizzo’s sharp-tongued bullying and slinky-hipped swagger, culminating in a ferocious “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”.

Peter Andre, if vocally underpowered, is surprisingly good fun as the Elvis-aping DJ and fantasy Teen Angel. It helps that he’s essentially in on the joke, sending up his own cheesy persona and incongruous presence in this professional musical theatre cast. “Beauty School Drop Out” is a highlight thanks to its camp, witty staging, with an angel whizzing in on a scooter and mannequin doll heads paraded around.

Frustratingly, the other songs lack that impact. Arlene Phillips’s choreography is effectively character-driven, from youthful rockabilly romps to the guys throwing punches, thrusting crotches and smoothing their hair, but you long for a number to really explode off the massive Dominion stage. Colin Richmond’s school gym-based set is likewise limiting.

But then that’s the core issue with this production, which feels caught between sombre realism and full-throttle, sugar-rush escapism. It feints at the former, like teasing a rumble with another gang, trouble with the cops, or a more hard-hitting look at predatory male behaviour, yet never quite commits. Though given the glee with which fans welcomed the end singalong megamix, I rather suspect that it’s the gentler, more inviting side of Grease which will keep audiences asking “Tell me more, tell me more”.

Grease is at the Dominion Theatre to 29 October. Book Grease tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Dan Partridge, Jocasta Almgill and company in Grease at the Dominion Theatre (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

Originally published on

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