ROCK OF AGES AT THE BIRMINGHAM NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE
Theatre Run: Monday 12 - Saturday 17 May 2014
Performance Reviewed: Monday 12 May 2014 (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Rock of Ages is a difficult beast to pigeonhole. It doesn’t so much suffer from an identity crisis as an identity overload, jostling with so many characters and subplots that can’t seem to decide if they’re being deliberately parodic or so-satirical-it’s-ultimately-sincere, and a fiercely postmodern approach that bandies around with tone so schizophrenically it sometimes feels more akin to musical theatre whiplash than anything else. The smash hits of the 80’s are in there too, and are plentiful, though some of the arrangements are disappointingly short and the whole ‘Rock’ through-line sometimes feels more of a clumsy afterthought than a titular McGuffin. Fortunately, for all the tonal incongruences and haphazardness of it’s plot, Rock of Ages does at least crucially make good on it’s promise of a fun, infectious and ultimately rather irrepressible evening of solid music and vibrant, high energy (see: super-charged) entertainment.
Rock of Ages’ numerous plot-lines are so atypical that on paper it almost does the show a disservice - aspirational young actress arrives in LA hoping to become a superstar, talented musician working in a bar dreams of getting his big break, corporate business attempts to shut down and demolish beloved club venue and so on. Whilst the show may be savvy enough to initially poke fun at itself regarding this, openly drawing attention to its own unoriginality, Rock of Ages should take note - merely poking fun at yourself and acknowledging to the audience that this is all musical theatre storytelling 101 doesn’t somehow excuse or put any extra meat on those narrative bare bones. The Book of Mormon and Urinetown are two great recent examples of post-modern, fourth-wall-breaking or overtly self-aware musical theatre handled intelligently and with wit and panache. Rock of Ages aims for this level but ultimately handles its self-reflexivity in a far more pedestrian and somewhat clumsy way, including a sudden Act II emphasis on it and the role and ‘abilities’ of it’s narrator Lonny (Stephen Rahman-Hughes) that ends up feeling more than a little gimmicky and over-indulged. Similarly, the show struggles to settle upon a tone throughout, particularly in the first Act - one moment the humour can be of a borderline infantile nature (usually courtesy of Rahman-Hughes’ Lonny) and the next a fairly brazen adult vibe can take over, with suitably raunchy on-stage action to match.
So it’s a bit of a narrative and tonal cluster-bomb, but trying too hard is preferable to not trying at all, and Rock of Ages as mentioned certainly fires on all cylinders as far as effort and energy is concerned. The mostly solid cast are certainly a key component to this, but special mention must also particularly go to Beowulf Boritt and Gregory Gale’s terrific set and costume design work, which coupled with Jason Lyons bombastic, high-octane lighting makes the show a sumptuous, visceral explosion of colour and vibrancy, particularly so for a touring production. It’s a shame the first half of Act I in particular was dogged with recurrent sound issues though, as it made the crucial formative parts of the story at times a little difficult to hear, with characters mics suddenly dropping out altogether, and during some of the heavier musical arrangements the cast were drowned out altogether, devolving some of the set pieces into noisy bemusement. Hopefully this was merely early teething issues on a first night though, and will be resolved for the remainder of the tour and the show’s time at the Alex.
Returning to the cast, Noel Sullivan was almost disarmingly impressive as Drew, the shows wannabe hopeful lead, belting out rock hits and power ballads with confidence and apparent ease. He recently gave a solid turn in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, but Ages certainly provides a more demanding and showy display of vocals, with Sullivan more than delivering. Cordelia Farnworth takes her stock lead female character of Sherrie and has as much fun with her as possible, particularly earlier on in the show, and whilst none of the characters are ever really fleshed out, Ben Richards and Daniel Fletcher in particular both compensate for this by getting fully into the spirit of things and chewing up the scenery with as much relish as possible as a womanising rockstar and spirited bar owner respectively. Cameron Sharp fizzles with comedic invention and physicality as young Franz, nervy son of the closest the show has to a protagonist in the form of Jack Lord’s admittedly entertaining walking stereotype Hertz Klinemann. Rachel McFarlane seems clued in on the show being at it’s strongest ironically not when trying to be too clever for it’s own good but when it actually steers back closer to formula, finding a tenderness and poignancy to ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ at a stage in the show where, shock horror, there’s actually something tangible in the way of character development and backstory. That being said, her character Justice Charlier is known as ‘mama’ and is a mother hen to the less fortunate ladies from her part of town, so it’s a small wonder they didn’t have Velma Kelly strut past at some point or attempt a strip club tango in her ‘Gentleman’s Club’.
Ultimately, Rock of Ages would benefit greatly from reining in its post-modern faux pas’ and not leaning so heavily on the kind of self-aware shtick that has been done ad nauseum by now, and far more effectively elsewhere. Because for all of it’s shortcomings, there is an at-times dazzling and suitably cheesy beast of a jukebox musical that occasionally rears it’s head and proves mightily enjoyable. The casual theatre-going audience will likely not pick up on or be particularly distracted by a number of the issues raised in this review, in which case you could probably comfortable add an extra star on the rating below. And admittedly whilst it is not an overly accomplished musical theatre show, it is at times an extremely accomplished and entertaining musical theatre experience, positively brimming with the kind of raucous rock and roll energy that is demanded of such a production and with just enough genuine laughs and killer tunes to keep the majority more than satisfied. It’s not quite an issue of style versus substance, as Rock of Ages pretty much admits from the get go that it is all about the style, but if you can leave any loftier expectations of what musical theatre can deliver at home, and forgive it’s attempting to excuse its own shortcomings by repeatedly and knowingly drawing attention to them, then fans of a rockin’ good time will find plenty to embrace and enjoy in the bizarre but buoyant, frustrating but funny and inconsistent but irrepressible world of Rock of Ages.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * (3 out of 5 Stars)
+ When firing on all cylinders, it truly Rocks!
+ Richards, Sullivan, Fletcher and Sharp's standout performances and vocals
+ West End/Broadway standard of visual design, particularly set and lighting
+ Some great jukebox hits littered throughout
+ Notably off-putting sound issues, particularly in Act I
+ Tries too hard with an ultimately unoriginal self-reflexive approach
+ Jarring tonal inconsistencies
+ Paper-thin characters and plot
ROCK OF AGES is running at the BIRMINGHAM NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE from Monday 12 to Saturday 19 May 2014.
Alternatively telephone the New Alexandra Theatre’s booking line direct on 0844 871 3011.
Press tickets for this performance of Rock of Ages were provided courtesy of the New Alexandra Theatre directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.