Grease preview: ‘cheesy rather than serious’

By Simon Fearn

Grease often finds itself amongst the nation’s best-loved musical, and came out on top in a BBC poll back in 2005. The last two weeks of term seem the perfect time for some retro fun with Foot of the Hill Theatre’s upcoming revival. ‘When I went to NSDF, a lot of the time people were emphasising the historical context and political angles of their plays,’ remembers director Jonathon Vautrey. ‘With Grease, it’s just about having a good time.’

Grease is close to many of the cast’s hearts, particularly choreographer Katie Downes.Grease was my favourite musical since I was very young, and as soon as I found out that we were doing Grease this year I thought I had to be involved,’ she explains. ‘I can’t sing; I can’t act; so I thought I could either be a backing dancer or choreograph you guys.’ Sam Martin (Kenickie) has also immensely enjoyed bringing a familiar musical to life. ‘When you sing the songs in your room you just sing the lines that the leads sing, but the majority of what we do is singing the harmonies,’ he tells me. ‘The last note of Greased Lightning is a five part harmony, and when it works it’s really satisfying.’

With such a well-known musical, Vautrey knows that audiences will come expecting certain familiar moments from the evening, but also wanted to make the production seem original and fresh. ‘Giving the cast the freedom to think about the roles themselves and what they want to do with them helps it become fresh in a way that doesn’t get rid of all the stuff that an audience comes and wants to see,’ he says. In this spirit, the cast aim to focus on bringing out the fun aspects of the musical rather than bring a twenty-first century eye to the moral difficulties of the narrative, such as Sandy’s transformation to please Danny at the end. ‘We chose to just go for it and make it cheesy rather than serious, and trust the audience to take it with a pinch of salt,’ explains Wesley Milligan (Danny). ‘We’re not trying to pack any serious moral message.’

Sandy’s transformation, however, may actually be a step towards her self-realisation rather than simply a negative compromise to please a man. ‘It’s quite difficult to find that balance between Sandy changing herself for Danny and also trying to seek acceptance in the Pink Ladies,’ Chloe Blakesley (Sandy) elaborates. ‘In the scene just before her transformation, the script does lend itself to her doing to because she wants it. That’s how I’ve tried to do it. I don’t know if either are the real Sandy.’ Downes is more certain that Sandy becomes more assertive as the musical progresses, and this is reflected in the choreography. ‘At the start Sandy is so unsure of herself and she doesn’t do anything with particular confidence,’ Downes explains. ‘At the end she thinks “this is me now and I’m not going to do anything half-heartedly anymore,” and you can visibly see that in the difference between Sandy at the start and You’re The One That I Want, where she’s pushing Danny around and she’s in control of that relationship then.’

Perhaps the main difference between a college musical like Grease and a DULOG production is that the cast are already a close-knit bunch, and this is reflected onstage. ‘Of all the shows I’ve done in Durham, this is the one that has the strongest chemistry across the entire cast,’ comments Smith-Galer. For Vautrey, this has created an infectious atmosphere during rehearsals. ‘One of the best things about keeping a Mary’s production mainly with Mary’s people involved (with the exception of Wesley, who we’ve adopted) is that people generally already know each other, so they come into a production and they’re instantly one big family,’ he says. ‘With some DST shows I’ve done you know people from various other shows that you’ve been in, and it can become little groups within a show.’

The fact that the cast are enjoying themselves will surely translate into a fabulous ensemble performance onstage, and promises to provide an evening of light-hearted entertainment. ‘There are some scenes where we’ve only just nailed doing it without laughing,’ Blakesley tells me. The team have constantly emphasised that the main aim of Grease is for both the cast and the audience to have as good a time as possible. ‘It’s a production where you don’t have to think too much while you’re watching, the same way you would watch a romcom,’ concludes Smith-Galer. ‘That is the appeal with Grease.

‘Grease’ will run from 16th to 17th June in St. Mary’s College Dining Hall. Book your tickets here.

Photograph: Jonathon Vautrey

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