Grease review – West End revival revs its way into the Dominion

Summer Nights will be sizzling in central London

 Dan Partridge as Danny and Jocasta Almgill as Rizzo
Dan Partridge as Danny and Jocasta Almgill as Rizzo
© Manuel Harlan
The wholesome American Dream is taking a bit of a battering on London musical stages at present: hot on the heels of the Young Vic's seismic reinvention of Oklahoma! comes this entertaining but surprisingly hard-hitting new take on one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Director Nikolai Foster may not deliver a volte-face on the scale of what Daniel Fish has achieved with that R&H classic, but this "new" Grease is still a fascinating repointing of a work that so many people know, or think they know, like the back of their hands.

It's nearly 30 years since the previous stage version of Grease that enjoyed several revivals, tours and spawned a reality TV casting show, first set up shop at the Dominion. Anybody who caught it then and returns for this new iteration (which still has the redoubtable Dame Arlene Phillips on board as choreographer, delivering some career-best work here) is in for a triple hit of nostalgia: for 1950s America as espoused by the 1972 Broadway musical, for the 1978 movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and for that neon-edged, primary-coloured revival that triumphed at this same venue in 1993. They may also be in for a bit of a surprise.

First seen at Leicester Curve in 2019, this Grease keeps the neon but surrounds it with somewhat darker hues, both visually and spiritually, returning Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's blockbuster to it's Chicagoan roots. The leather jacketed T-Birds gang are back to their original name of the Burger Palace Boys, and are in constant trouble with the Police, Rydell High is no longer in sunny California but in a rather less prosperous inner city, and there's a very real sense that the shiny carefree exuberance of high school is about to be extinguished forever as these working class youngsters head out into a tough and uncertain adult world.

Foster's fast-moving production makes a convincing case for the grittier elements of Jacobs and Casey's script, and doesn't shy away from tackling the now-problematic sexual politics head on. There are even shades of West Side Story in the gang scenes: the T-Birds of the movie and the last revival were randy but essentially harmless, but the Burger Palace Boys here have a troubling, potentially violent edge, especially with regard to their jawdroppingly unreconstructed attitudes to the opposite sex. The less palatable stuff has always been there of course (have you ever really listened to the lyrics to "Greased Lightning"?!) but feels more foregrounded here than usual.

The visual aesthetic bears this out. Colin Richmond's set and costumes are attractive but rooted in an unglamorous reality, while Ben Cracknell's lighting is moody and often muted, although there's an annoying tendency to blind the audience with a battery of stadium-style illumination during scene transitions.

Movie fans will be pleased to know that this revival retains the interpolation of songs written especially for the film – "Hopelessly Devoted To You", "Sandy", "Grease Is The Word" and of course "You're The One That I Want" – and they've seldom been sung better than they are here. The voices – soloists and chorus – are uniformly magnificent and Sarah Travis's musical arrangements are punchy and exciting. The sheer size of the Dominion and the amplification that requires means that there are moments when it's not always clear who's speaking during the book scenes, but few will care.

Phillips's choreography is fabulous: more character-driven than her work on the previous revival (even when exploding across the stage in rigorously drilled abandon, the company look and move like real people rather than show dancers), it's dynamic and inventive ("Greased Lightning" has had a Stomp-like makeover that brings the house down) and fills the vast stage with whirling limbs and prodigious energy.

In amongst all the high octane stuff, it's interesting how effective some quieter moments are: watch Jocasta Almgill's (possibly) pregnant Betty Rizzo quietly breaking her heart while all her friends gather on the opposite side of the stage to cheering on Jake Reynolds's endearing, guitar-strumming Doody. Or the lovely scene where teacher Miss Lynch (Corinna Powlesland, exquisite) imparts pearls of romantic wisdom to a confused pupil. The detail in these moments is refreshing and telling.

That detail extends to the principal performances too. Dan Partridge's Danny is an intriguing mixture of cocky bravado and occasional childlike awkwardness, entirely convincing as a priapic teenager bewildered by his feelings. Olivia Moore invests Sandy with a compelling, centred seriousness, and a stunning voice. Paul French's gang leader Kenickie is an electrifying, troubling presence, both more athletic and more sinister than his predecessors in the role. Almgill's Rizzo is an absolute knockout, finding rich, real colours of vulnerability and self-hatred under all the sass and promiscuity, it's almost impossible to take your eyes off her. Her enthralling cri de coeur number "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" stops the show cold. If she reads as a little mature to be a high school student, well, that was also true of Stockard Channing in the movie…and she was marvellous as well.

Peter André puts in an enthusiastic appearance as an uber-camp Teen Angel and a local DJ and, if he seems a bit at sea amongst all the dazzling professionalism surrounding him, he is at least likeable. The choice to make school geek Eugene, who is presumed gay in this version, an honorary member of the girl gang the Pink Ladies at the end seems a bit like wishful box-ticking, and there is an uncomfortable tension at times between the exhilaration of the big numbers and the seaminess of much of the dialogue.

It may take diehard fans a while to adjust to the fact that this is not a stage spin-off of the movie, but they'll get sensational renditions of the much loved songs, plus some less familiar, equally rousing numbers, and a terrific cast. Ultimately, this is a thunderously good evening out. Summer Nights on Tottenham Court Road just got considerably hotter.

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Closed: 29 October 2022