“Sometimes you tell the day by the bottle you drink”
If you thought that it would be rather unlikely for me to be going to Rock of Ages, then you would have been correct. It didn’t have the instant appeal to me, not so much in the fact that it is a jukebox musical but rather that the music on which it is based is the kind of the classic 1980s rock of which I wasn’t a fan as a boy at the time nor have I become one now. But one of the joys of maintaining a blog such as this is that occasionally I am offered tickets to shows, thereby getting to see things I wouldn’t normally have considered and so broadening my theatrical horizons, so thank you very much AKA, I am most grateful. So that is how I ended up in the Shaftesbury Theatre on a Wednesday evening, being served beer at my seat, fake lighter in hand.
The show has been something of a success on Broadway and has been eagerly anticipated by fans of the show here, of whom I know a surprising number, but I knew nothing of the show itself. It centres on Hollywood rock dive The Bourbon Room which is threatened with closure by some German developers who want to ‘clean up’ the city and the effect that will have on the people who work and frequent the bar. The owner calls in a big rock star to play his final gig there before splitting with his band; a city planner wants to secure its unique place in the town’s history, and these all have an impact on the tentative and tortured love story between the barman (and would-be rocker) and the waitress (an aspiring actress).
But Chris D’Arienzo’s book isn’t satisfied with just telling a story, it also passes comment on musical theatre as a genre with plenty of fourth wall breaking, mainly by the narrator, the audience being constantly acknowledged with many a raised eyebrow or cheeky wink. And this is where the show lost me as I didn’t feel it managed to marry these two elements particularly well: on the one hand, there’s a deal of poking of fun at the conventions of musical theatre, but on the other there is a conventional musical theatre story being told at the same time, and these seem to work against each other.
The best moment of the show for me was the delightfully silly male duet of ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ complete with overblown dance moves and just highly amusing, but it is sandwiched between a traditional musical number, to a rock song natch, with some deadly serious choreo and a po-faced and sadly rather flat rendition of ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ which needs much more drama injected into it. For me the mixture doesn’t gel: the satirical side needs to be threaded through all scenes of the show, or else the main story needs to be further fleshed out to create more believable and likeable characters and a plot one can invest in.
Taking the serious hat off, there is a huge amount of energy onstage and a clear enthusiasm for the show from a committed ensemble. Oliver Tompsett as the leading wannabe rocker Drew sounds sensational as does Amy Pemberton as love interest Sherrie, even if she has to negotiate some very random character decisions and hopefully time will bring a little more sexual chemistry between the pair. Justin Lee Collins and Shayne Ward, the two faces from the promotional material, are also both surprisingly excellent in what are supporting roles but both strong-voiced and Ward in particular demonstrating some nifty comic timing.
Star of the show for me though is Simon Lipkin as Lonny the narrator who also works in the bar. It is he who does most of the fourth wall breaking and he does it perfectly, whipping up such a great natural rapport with the audience from the off. The ensemble, featuring a Strallen of course which is de rigeur for a musical these days! (Zizi in this case), are excellent though I personally think Twinnie Lee Moore is far too good not be in bigger roles. And being picky, I’d say that Rohan Tickell could afford to be a little more Teutonic, Rachel McFarlane though sounding great, needs to capture more of her strip club manager Justice’s character and likewise Jodie Jacobs didn’t quite hit the acting and comic notes quite right for me though also sounding good.
Truth be told, I was never the target audience for this show and I was bemused by finding that I had never heard of more than half the songs – apparently fans of Guitar Hero will be fine, though that is an activity in which I have yet to partake. But more than that, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at what I found to be weak material. My heart died a little every time people laughed raucously at the campery of Sandy Moffat’s Franz, he does well but something about the audience reaction really stuck in my throat and in any case, the gay/European thing has been done much more effectively, sensitively and funnily in another show still in the West End – here it just feels lazy and at worse, panders to both latent xenophobia and homophobia.
Had the rest of the show won me over, I would most likely have been more forgiving about this, but despite the energy onstage and the obvious enthusiasm of much of the audience, Rock of Ages just wasn’t for me. Part of it is my feeling generally about jukebox shows – I do find it frustrating when a song you like is featured very briefly and in some kind of a mash-up, part of it is my feeling about rock music – guitar solos make me shrivel up inside and I just want to take scissors to any man with long hair, but crucially this is a show that is trying to have its cake (or pudding as I managed to mangle the saying last night) and eat it – poking fun at the genre whilst cleaving closely to it at the same time. And it is this schizophrenia that characterises my ultimate response: bits of it I loved, bits of it I hated.