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Review: Secret Cinema Presents Grease at Birmingham NEC

Photo: Luke Dyson

It’s been a bit of a quiet year for Secret Cinema. Following the acquisition of the company in September 2022 by TodayTix, they’ve not mounted a show in the capital since Guardians of the Galaxy opened in late August 2022. Being one of three shows they opened last year (alongside Bridgerton and the long-awaited Dirty Dancing), many fans assumed that with the backing of their new owners, and now firmly in a post-COVID world, 2023

would be full steam ahead with multiple shows opening throughout the year.

Instead, we had relative silence on the company's social media in the first few months of the year. After a lot of teasing, it was confirmed in April that their next show would be Grease. But this show would have a twist - they were leaving London behind, instead mounting the show in Birmingham. It’d be their first full show outside of the capital in the UK.

They continued to depart from tradition as the event drew closer, releasing a map of the site in June (a month before it even opened!), and also confirming that phones wouldn’t be locked away this time. While it remains to be seen if any of these will become the norm going forward, Grease certainly seemed like an opportunity for Secret Cinema to rewrite its rulebook now they were under new ownership…

The show does feel different to their two most recent outdoor events (Dirty Dancing and Romeo + Juliet) in a few key ways. Firstly, it’s much much smaller. With a reduced audience capacity, reduced venue size and even a reduced running time for exploration, it’s a more intimate and focused affair than has been the norm.

Clocking in at a bit over 90 minutes from doors opening to the film starting, Secret Cinema Presents Grease packs a lot into its exploration time. Relative to Dirty Dancing or Romeo + Juliet, it has roughly the same amount of buildings and areas to explore, but in a much smaller space. This, coupled with the ratio of cast to guests also feeling higher, makes it easier to see more of the site quickly and get involved in what’s going on around you with ease.

Photo: Luke Dyson

The other notable difference between Grease and the company's other outdoor shows is the newly relaxed rules on mobile phones. While they seem to be still be trying to find a sweet spot between encouraging audiences to live in the moment, but also allow guests to still take photos inside that don’t include the cast, we found the use of phones to be a refreshing change that didn’t break the immersion of the event. You could get photos of your group inside the event without issue, which will surely help boost the awareness of what it’s actually like inside the gates - something that was tougher with guests' phones locked away previously.

The cast all do an outstanding job of turning the Rydell High site into a living, breathing place - from the large re-enactments of songs like Summer Nights and Grease Lightnin’, to smaller character moments like Sandy perfecting stubbing out her cigarette with Frenchy, every pocket of the site has activities going on, and the cast are working non-stop to make the audience part of the world.

If you're not being pulled into choir practice, or being hit on by Vince Fontaine, you might be taking part in an egg and spoon race for carnival tokens or pulling off the prank of the century against Principle McGee. Even during the films screening, the cast barely have a moments rest, with every big song lovingly recreated in front of the screen - the National Bandstand scene is the highlight of this, it’s a chaotic and meticulously timed spectacle that must have been a nightmare to choreograph and perfect in rehearsals.

Photo: Luke Dyson

Overall, Grease is a great immersive experience that more than does justice to the source material. With a knock out cast and some amazing performances, it's one of the strongest outdoor shows Secret Cinema have put on in recently years. Fingers crossed that future outdoor Secret Cinema shows will follow in the footsteps of Grease and be smaller scale, as it makes for a richer and more engaging experience overall.



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