This year our fabulous drama department continued to set the bar dazzlingly high as the Lowther Theatre clapped and bopped away to the addictively catchy hits of Disney’s ‘HSM’. I thought it was something to do with shaving off train times to London when I first heard the initials, but was soon put right by excited teenagers who seemed to know every character and line already before the first rehearsal. What had I missed out on? Evidently, I am just not the right ‘demographic’.
It’s not as if I am unfamiliar with the genre. As a young lad, I well remember the fevered excitement which greeted the Hollywood film production of ‘Grease’ - our adolescent appetites being whetted by Frankie Valli’s hit song telling us that ‘grease is the time, is the place, is the motion’...whatever that actually was supposed to mean. On the back of its success, British youth also thrilled to the Fonz, Joanie and Chachi on TV in ‘Happy Days’ Thus, I can well understand the attraction to the teenage sensibility of the schlocky American high school extravaganza with its love rivalries; its jocks-versus-nerds wars; its OTT teenage exuberance and despair, staged in those glamorous US high school settings, abounding with metal lockers, water coolers, baseball bleachers and vast cafeterias.
It is sometimes disparagingly said that HSM is ‘Grease Lite’, so I was looking forward to finding out for myself when I showed up at the Lowther to see the AKS version of the Disney hit. I was a little concerned: would I be the oldest person in the room? Would I be trampled on by screaming teenyboppers, bringing back long-buried memories of the traumatic time my female cousin made me go and watch the Osmonds with her and umpteen thousand wailing girls at Belle Vue? I need not have feared. There were plenty of parents, even grandparents, perhaps reliving the trials and tribulations of their own youth. Who knows: maybe one of two of them had themselves once enjoyed Romeo-and-Juliet-esque romances across the Bunsen burners back in the day - jock boy meets bespectacled swotty girl, etc. Yes, the plot is as clichéd as that. But then, this is High School Musical not Hedda Gabler. You have to leave your realism radar at home and go with the flow.
The plot is a modern re-enactment of Grease. Where the latter had the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, here we have the basketball Wildcats and the Brainiacs. There are other sub-groupings too for those who can cope with more. Star athlete Troy Bolton (J-Jay Ditchfield), falls for the studious Gabriella Montez (Jenny Lucking) at a holiday karaoke party. Guess what? Gabriella shows up at Troy’s school after the holidays, and they both sing about the other oblivious of their new proximity. Boy, I didn’t see that coming! All we need now is a feisty, bully-girl who will try to put a spanner in the works. Enter femme fatale Sharpay Evans (Rachel Cadley) who tries to sabotage her rival for Troy’s affection. This brattish, drama-queen, spoilsport comes in a pair with twin Ryan (Oliver Akers), eight minutes younger, and, at first, in thrall to his pushy ‘elder’ sibling, until he finds his voice in the second act and encourages the talented jock-geek combo to audition for the main roles in ‘Juliet and Romeo’ (that rings a bell, too…).
Troy and Gabriella’s burgeoning teen romance was sensitively conveyed. It begins in their awkward first meeting in their opening duet, ‘Start of Something New’, and evolves very subtly as the pair become more comfortable through their trials and tribulations. As the plot develops, with Gabriella and Troy finding themselves auditioning for the musical thanks to the persuasive powers of its author Kelsi (an always believable Kayleigh Williams: being a pianist she was allowed to break the hallowed law of acting and ‘turn her back to the audience), the scene is set for three-way conflict.
Excellent comedy moments are provided by Edward Thomson as the school’s very own shock-jock, Jack Scott, accompanied by a series of black-costumed helpers who facial contortions were always humorously received. The drama detention ordered by the imperious Miss Darbus was beautifully satirical and histrionic. We particularly enjoyed Verity Walker’s peristaltic earthworm. Florence Bunday was always the focus of attention on stage as her commanding presence and gong kept the teens in check. The combination of imperiousness and genuine concern for students and fairness was very finely judged by the talented Florence.
What can I say about our terrific lead actors? J-Jay Ditchfield’s magnificent maturity of voice as Troy was a wonderful highlight matched note for note by Jenny Lucking’s perfect rendition of some tricky numbers. She seems to be cornering the ingenue roles – having played Blousey Brown in Bugsy Malone, another doe-eyed newbie transplanted into a new environment, and unaware of her talent.
Pantomime villain Sharpay (chief Thespian in the school) was magnificently portrayed by Rachel Cadley, whose amazing hair, I think, deserved its own mention, as it swooped dizzyingly, emanating its own haughty disapproval of proceedings. Sharpay never lies: she ‘improvises’. Rachel was an excellent vampish comedic foil to Gabriella, and we enjoyed her merciless bullying of Ryan: Oliver Akers here showing talent way beyond his years in this principal role.
Owen Walton as chief Jock Chad proved a great friend to Troy despite his initial scepticism that his friend had gone mad to even consider lowering himself to appear in a soppy musical. We enjoyed the exuberance of other side-kicks, Sally Stone and Naimh Crean delightful as Gabriella’s loyal Brainiac allies; and Wildcat Abe Coyne as secret foodie, Zeke, who’s every chocolate brownie is a loving tribute to his lady-love, Queen Bee, Sharpay. There was too a charmingly epiphanical moment when Coach Bolton (Charlie Cadley) acknowledges his son’s musical talent and promises to act more like a father and less like a master-sergeant.
It’s always gratifying to see the way in which students from Year 7 up to 13 meld together in this collaborative musical venture. Drama is an important vehicle for breaking down year-group barriers. These young people have been put through their paces over holidays and after school, and their dedication showed in every musical number, in the slick choreography, the smiles of the movement-perfect dancers, and the convincing facial reactions of the ‘chorus’ members, who may have no speaking lines but whose support to the main actors is so important to the overall spectacle. Truly, the drama department’s ‘family’ atmosphere goes further than the fact of matching hoodies. There was a tangible musical confidence from the chorus, and their enthusiasm transmitted itself to the audience who rocked along in their seats – the braver amongst them standing up to sway along. The big serious theatre atmosphere of a professional stage really brings out the best in our pupils.
As ever, our indefatigable and immensely talented dancing teacher, Ms Kathy Preston, made strong use of her female dance troupe, giving the Wildcat cheerleaders some great high-kicking routines which are performed with lithe precision. It was impressive to see how well the bouncing of the basketballs was slickly incorporated into the show by the macho Wildcats as they exhorted Troy to ‘Get’cha Head in the Game’.
Talented musicians are vital in a show like this. Giving up countless hours to rehearse the singers, Mrs Giudici and Mr Mann have worked wonders on transmitting the score so slickly and with the right sort of exuberance – not too brash but allowing the performers’ voices to come through. Many thanks go to the experts in the band.
Those colossuses of the drama department, Mrs Marland and Miss Worthington will have, I hope, a feeling of excitement and satisfaction as they practically collapse from exhaustion. They certainly deserve it (the satisfaction, I mean, not the exhaustion!). They will have worked painstakingly to judge the ebb and flow of the show, when to push for improvement and when to leave alone. To both ladies must go every accolade.
I know too of the time given up by my colleagues to do make-up, ticket sales, the raffle, front of house, the lighting (we tip our hat to Mr Huttley), and so many more unsung roles, all of which are so vital to the finished product.
So having been a little sceptical of HSM, I will confess I am now a convert. Indeed, much as I like ‘Grease’, the show most compared with ‘High School Musical’, this musical stands up well in its own right: indeed, its moral message is more inspiring, its innocence more winning, and its closing chorus ‘We’re All In This Together’ more relevant than ever as we Brits sail away from Europe into an unknown future.
D E Smyth