This reviewer is such a recent convert to the mobile telephone that he forgets to switch his off at the appropriate times. As he sat in the packed stalls of the Duchess Theatre last night, he could feel the phone in his breast pocket urgently throbbing. But no sound emerged. No intimate dialogue was spoiled by the unwelcome notes of a ring-tone. The theatre was filled with the overwhelming sound of a rock band in full spate.
Billed as “the cult musical sequel in concert”, Cool Rider is indeed more like a concert than a musical. It is the stage version ofGrease 2, and was originally a movie first screened in 1982 as the sequel to the very popular Grease. The movie was so bad, one member of the audience told me, that it was really good. He had been to see it at least ten times. He had also been to see Cool Rider when it was performed at the Lyric Theatre in January this year, for one night only. The performances at the Duchess Theatre are also rationed. The show is only running from Tuesday 15th to Saturday 19th April. Such limited opportunities to watch the show only enhance its cult status. The house was full last night, and many in the audience knew the songs and the dialogue off by heart. They proved this by singing along to the songs, and shouting out the lines before the actors had a chance to deliver them.
Such a level of audience participation is rarely seen on the London stage. But it was more like a rock concert than a regular musical. The live band was brilliant, and one number followed another with little in the way of dialogue to interrupt them. The entire cast were in excellent voice, while the dancing displayed a wondrous agility, somersaults and cartwheels being turned with gusto. Strict choreography underlay this infectious exuberance.
The story line is simple and somewhat clichéd. The scene is an American high school in the early 1960s. Reference is made to President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and the real possibility of nuclear annihilation, which only makes the kids more determined to have fun. Various groups of high school students compete in a talent show, while the essential love interest is provided by a geeky English boy (Michael), who has just started at the school, and Stephanie, a feisty young woman who has discarded her macho boyfriend but dreams of replacing him with a ‘cool rider’ (who would himself not be lacking in macho qualities). Unable to impress Stephanie with his intellect, the nerdish Michael disguises himself as a leather-clad biker with Ray Ban shades, and provokes her desire. This is a well-worn theme; think of Superman. But its unoriginality is part of the attraction, as Cool Rider parodies the conventions of the genre.
One can speculate why it is that the (idealized) lifestyle of teenagers in the America of the late 1950s and early 1960s should exert such a fascination for young people in Britain now (most of the audience were far from qualifying for their free bus pass). Could it be that it is seen as an Age of Innocence, when youngsters were just beginning to break away from strict sexual mores, and growing affluence promoted a feeling of confidence that things were going to get even better, despite the Cold War? Away with such speculation! This show is good unclean fun. Smut aplenty is provided by the overweight school principal, Mr Stuart, and the prim but improper schoolmistress, Miss Mason. (She is billed as “Ms Mason”, but surely “Miss” would have been her designation in those days.) Their exchanges are ripe with innuendo, and also provide a link between the various scenes. Plump and lecherous, Mark Benton as Mr Stuart almost steals the show.
But the show cannot be really stolen by any of the actors. It is really a great ensemble performance, and it had the audience on their feet. Do not go if you want your grey matter to be stimulated. Go – in the limited time available – if you want to have your ears blasted and your eyes widened by a knock-out sensory treat.