Yet another TV star selection show spawned the love-sick double lead in this latest musical revival to hit the West End. The trouble with these TV shows is that they only seem to throw-up lookalikes of the stars most people remember in the roles. True to form, 'Grease' introduces us to nineteen year old Danny Bayne who resembles John Travolta (minus dimple) and Susan McFadden who could be a double for Olivia Newton John.
'Grease' is a youthful mixture of hair gel, hairspray and hormones, a combination that one might expect to generate an intriguing plot, and some gritty reality perhaps. Surprisingly, the show really doesn't generate anything more than boredom in terms of the story, and is beginning to display all the hallmarks of a show that's been 'done to death'. It's hard to imagine from this production how the show has managed to garner a veritable cabinet full of awards over the years.
The wisp of a story in 'Grease' would blow away in a light breeze. Thin is really not the word. Anorexic might be more appropriate. Essentially, it's the start of a new term at Rydell High School where we follow the tediously predictable activities of two groups of students - the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies. They mess about, have a sleep-over party (girls only!), and of course there's the obligatory school hop. The only slightly interesting feature of this story is that Rizzo (the sultry, moody leader of the Pink Ladies) thinks she's pregnant, which has the dubious consequence of making newcomer Sandy think it's about time she got in on some of the action she's been primly missing for long enough.
The dialogue is diabolically trite, and the few attempts at humour are tired beyond endurance and recouped very few laughs at all. In fact, on the rare occasions when someone did laugh it seemed as if it were more in sympathy than as a response to something that was actually funny - or maybe it was because someone had just woken up from an alcohol-induced slumber. At any rate, the humour is fake, contrived or predictable. For example, it was pretty much on the cards that the stereotypical bookworm Eugene was going to lose his trousers, and when he did, it only brought a sympathetic chorus of 'awwws' from the maternally inclined members of the audience (not all of them female, I suspect). However, I did smile at one sentence from the DJ during the dance contest when he exhorts the assembled males to 'Throw your mittens around your kittens'.
This version of 'Grease' has more in common with cartoons, or comic strips than real human interaction. Listening to the dialogue in the first few minutes had me thinking of the Simpsons because the vocalisation is so affected and contrived like the soundtrack from a cartoon series. And one of the characters had a striking resemblance to Beavis from another famous TV series. 'Grease' is also far more camp than the film, and in almost every way. Even the tiresome, drawling DJ – Vince Fontaine – looks about as camp as it's possible to get with a quiff that would stretch to Mordor and back again.
So what of the new-born stars from the theatrical stellar nursery that is now TV? Well, both of them look the part – if lookalikes are what you're after. But though their singing is competent, it lacks that certain something that marks real star quality. The same goes for the standard of the acting too – passable, but nothing exhilarating or closely approaching charismatic. John Travolta's film portrayal of Danny trod a careful line between nice guy and bad guy – but he still kept you guessing about the darker side of his character. In Bayne we have a nice guy who we know could never be a bad guy, no matter how many inches of lead pipe he might wield or carry around in his trousers. Whereas there was a touch of camp to John Travolta's cool, here there's more a touch of cool to Bayne's naïve, boy-next-door charm.
The choreography has the necessary energy but lacks innovation, surprise or a real sense that there's anything special about it. It would have been improved by some risk-taking and some more exciting and challenging movement. Apart from a bit of a boost at the end, it's generally safe, being focused on upper body movements with routines developed around the hands and arms rather than on legs and feet.
Unsurprisingly, the audience was largely female - and most of the men who were in attendance seemed to have been dragged along by their partners. The ones near to me pretty well sulked their way, motionless, through the evening. Their female counterparts, however, were whooping as soon as the house lights started fading. But there was noticeably less whooping as the show progressed. And when the obligatory clapping in time to the music came at the end, there were very few people who felt driven to get to their feet, and when the cast came on for a second shot at curtain calls, it felt like they were struggling to find real enthusiasm from an audience who had initially been highly receptive and genuinely excited. I sensed disappointment in the ranks, which affirmed my own sentiments entirely.
"How under-sexed, how under-done and under par I found director David Gilmore's attempt to put the brilliantine back into Grease!..Is it not high time producers found real stars for musicals again?"
Nicholas De Jongh for The Evening Standard
"Danny Bayne as the hero displays bags of energy and has one good moment when he puffs on a last fag before setting off on a track-race, but he doesn't possess the mocking insolence of John Travolta in the movie. As for Susan McFadden, she has all of Sandy's wholesomeness and sings prettily, but has a painfully limited range of physical expression."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Bayne...dances well enough, but he always appears to be copying someone else's moves - whenever he is asked to be still, or to think, he looks blank..."McFadden has a sweet smile and a strong voice. Unfortunately she belts out every ballad as if it were karaoke night; there's no finesse or feeling."
Sarah Crompton for THe Daily Telegraph
"Lacklustre production...They all flounce and pose their way through Arlene Phillips’s uninspired and, on the whole, undemanding choreography."
Sam Marlowe for The Times
"With its vestigial, embarrassing plot, Grease comes over, in this high-energy, high-decibel but completely unaffecting production, as a jukebox masquerading as a musical."
Paul Taylor for Independent