‘Well this is a level up from the usual burger crowd (said my female Pakistani companion) — some of them look almost hipster!’ Which, when viewed from the back of the head was certainly true. How hipster the last-night audience for the musical ‘Grease’ actually was is a bit of an open question, but the audience was certainly different from that which showed up to see ‘Carnage’, which was the last Made for Stage production I saw back in 2012. For one thing there were no children, at least not babes in arms which were evident when I last had a theatrical outing, and most people seemed to have understood that it is at the very least polite to turn off, or at least silence, ones mobile phone during the performance.
What the audience got was polished considering it is essentially a semi-amateur production although many of the cast have theatrical training and experience, and technically hitch-free — I detected just a single dead mike in the whole two-and-a-half hours and the sound quality was exceptional. They also got an outstandingly good live musical accompaniment in the form of a totally-in-the-groove rock combo that delivered the goods from a kind of shelf overlooking the stage. They got some cracking performances as well, men and women delivering the vocals at full throttle — but slightly less on-song with the recitative elements of the production. The spoken words sometimes lacked the passion and conviction of their sung equivalents but let’s not complain shall we? This was a cracker of a package and it was not an easy ride.
For those familiar with the original film it was not much more than a competent rites-of-passage and growing-up type of flick strung together with some memorable pop and a couple of iconic performances by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Hugely popular in its day it is still — in the USA — the highest-grossing musical film of all time. And it contains some very adult themes — the bread and butter of teen life in 20-century America but rather less talked about in 21 century Pakistan.
Which brings me to the point. The entire story revolves around un-moderated relationships between men and women, most of whom are sexually active and none of whom are married. In the second half one of the leads, Rizzo — a knockout performance at every level by Natasha Humera Eja — reveals that she is ‘missing her friend’ as in not having her period, indicative of a pregnancy. And far from welcome.
It later transpires that she is not pregnant — ‘my friend showed up’ — but I detected a collective intake of breath on the part of some of the older members of the audience around me. Some of the double-entendres went over the heads of many of the audience — how ‘Frenchy’ got her name was lost on most apart from a handful that cracked up — and there were parts of the narrative that seemed to go slightly flat with the Pink Girls coterie never quite acquiring a patina of credibility.
All that said there was a sense that for many in the audience Grease was as much aspirational as inspirational. This was not the crass candy-floss of Bollywood, this was real life. With quite a bit of singing and dancing in between. This was a version, albeit stylised and not exactly a comfy fit cross-culturally, of life as many sitting there would wish it to be lived. A life full of dangerous — and yes, they are dangerous no matter what your culture — freedoms and a rainbow of choices that those freedoms give free rein to. Freedoms and choices that those on stage amply demonstrated are not always taken or made wisely or with maturity.
This was grown up stuff, and as we applauded the cast and production team with Nida Butt and Hamza Jafri deserving particular accolade as much for the guts to stage this as for any thespian competences, there was a sense of a part of Pakistan having grown up as well. Any live theatre is a niche experience in this country and most will never experience it. So give yourself a treat the next time the Made for Stage people shake their bones, satisfaction guaranteed — and no, they didn’t pay me to write this!
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2016.
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