The Witches of West Fife ***
Oran Mor, Glasgow
This is the explosive energy captured and immortalised in Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s iconic 1972 musical Grease, which became the smash-hit 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John; and audiences still find it irresistible today, as the umpteenth revival of the stage musical – in this case a British touring version produced by Paul Nicholas and David Ian – reaches Edinburgh Playhouse.
In truth, this current production – originally directed by David Gilmore and choreographed by Arlene Phillips – sometimes looks a little uninspired. Tom Parker of The Wanted cuts a slight, unimposing figure as Danny, although Danielle Hope’s Sandy is lovely, and sweet-voiced; and the show often signals the moments when laughs or applause are expected with all the gentle subtlety of Big Brother instructing the masses to be amused, or else. Yet in the end, it’s impossible to resist the sheer exuberance of the 20-strong company, and Griff Johnson’s fine onstage live band, as they dance and sing their way through the show’s terrific playlist, from Summer Nights to You’re The One That I Want, via bad girl Rizzo’s sarcastic anthem Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee.
And if the final message –get your tight pants on, girls, and give that teddy boy what he wants – looks unfashionable in the age of third-wave feminism, it’s still crystal clear that this is as much about Sandy learning to express herself as Danny finally getting what he’s been longing for ever since those summer nights.
Every time women begin to empower themselves, though, the danger of backlash seems to re-emerge from the patriarchal sludge; and although we no longer burn witches, the language of misogyny is never far from the surface of our culture. Jane Livingstone’s new show The Witches Of West Fife, part of the Play, Pie and Pint season at Oran Mor, is in some ways a fine dog’s breakfast of a piece, that tries to take us from 21st-century Fife to 17th-century London with a cast of three, and barely a change of costume.
Yet it’s also full of seething energy, as it explores the brutal institutional misogyny in 16th-century Fife that formed part of King James VI’s war on witchcraft and his book Demonology, which later –after he became king of England in 1603 – helped inspire Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The linking figure in the story is Sally Reid’s Lilyan, a 16th-century Scots woman who has fled to London to escape the king’s persecution, and dreads his arrival there. Her 20th century counterpart, Janet, is one of three feisty female extras playing the witches in a film version of Macbeth, but Lilyan is the woman who has the chance to talk to Will Shakespeare about the ethics of perpetuating anti-witch hysteria down the centuries, just to win the King’s favour; and perhaps – just possibly – to influence his handling of the theme, even as he makes his inevitable compromise with the reality of power.
Grease, Edinburgh Playhouse, final performances today, and at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 13-18 November. The Witches Of West Fife, Oran Mor, final performance today.