Left feeling not quite rocked

Glorious quartet: the feisty Scaramouche (Lauren Samuels), Galileo (MiG Ayesa), Brit (Rolan Bell) and Meat (Lucie Jones, dazzling)

We Will Rock You

Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield

****

We Will Rock You first surfaced as a stagework in 2002, as a Musical tribute to the legendary, unforgettable Freddie Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara), whose tragic death in November 1991 made him an icon not just of the whole Rock revival, but of that first generation poleaxed by AIDS, who could not possibly have known better.

The equally inimitable Ben Elton (TV's Blackadder with Richard Curtis, plus The Young Ones, Happy Families) had long thought of writing a piece about Mercury. When it finally came about, with a premiere staged aptly at London's Dominion Theatre, it met a mixed press. Part of the interest in catching this current touring version at the Motorpoint was to see if such mixed reviews were justified.

They were. But flawed as it is, this is in no way a show to be lambasted. It boasts a spectacular, massively talented 8-man band (keyboardist Pablo Navarro leads), who bang on a can sometimes too loudly for this voluminous venue, but then that's what classic Rock is about; a cheerfully gifted cast who are often left underdirected by Elton himself (some of this looks tired - maybe choreographer Arlene Phillips should take over the whole); and hyped visual effects and projections that alternate the dazzling with damp squibs.

The story is important: delayed by ten minutes of introductory nothing, the identity of the rather sweetly pantomime characters and the nature of their worthy quest get insufficiently spelt out. The longing of ‘Galileo' (Miguel Ayres) and ‘Scaramouche' (Lauren Samuels) – one wishes the names married somewhat better - is to restore music, and especially Rock, to a world taken over by a 1984­-like, computer-led dictatorship (Globalsoft: dangerously near-actionable).

The doughty pair effects this by linking up with a nest of brave souls, who have burrowed away in an animal-like hideout (Heartbreak House Hotel) where hopefully the evil Killer Queen (here, Brenda Edwards, handsome and full-voiced yet somehow a bit vapid) and factotum Commander Kashoggi (an impressively energetic Sean Kingsley, a noted Valjean from Les Miserables) cannot find and persecute them.

Kingsley, megastar of Musical, rock/blues vocalist and Sugarland Slim front man, has a lousy script and is stupidly projected showing his miked side, but one knockout song, fabulous in voice and tone, ignites everything; whatever the text, he is magnetic performer when in full flow; a bit more straight theatre, of which he is well capable, and where he might well flower if the voice goes, might lift him up notches.

 

The sensational Britney (Rolan Bell) and his feisty companion Meat (Lucie Jones)

It's two of these fugitives, Roland Bell (Britney) and Lucie Jones (Meat, though Meatloaf or Meatcleaver would do), who really wake up this show after its ponderous start. The Pantomime element – it's just the kind of thing Elton could have seen as a small boy at his local Catford playhouse – actually picks up here.

Though Samuels emerges vividly later on, her pat cockney asides miles better than the feeble, failed crowd-pleasing cracks of the beginning, it's these two who electrify events.

The real star is Bell, a striking and galvanising actor, with his almost balletic movements, plus a singing voice that has rich and alluring character despite all the attempts of  merciless loudspeakers and an overegged control panel to diminish it.

In a sense, from then We Will Rock You doesn't look back. The chorus (or ensemble) bits are iffy, with nothing to equal the stunningly precise androgynous writhings (‘Radio Ga Ga', the spine-tingling number by Queen's bassist Roger Taylor, 1984) that are the one redeeming bit of the early minutes.

That dance alone, in magical white (Tim Goodchild's costumes are one of the highs of this production), imitated or recapitulated twice later on - at the start of and near the end of Act II - was superb beyond words. But the leads came vocally into their own, and Ayesha's Galileo, a no-hope Everyman wimp for most of the show - nothing like the switched-on heartthrob of the glossily illustrated £10 programme book - has one electrifying number, in which he knocks everything for six: he can clearly do it when he wants to, or when the galumphing script allows him.

It's a tragedy that the band and electronics spoil two key numbers – a Samuels-MiG Ayesa duet that is on the edge of extremely touching; and the one magnetising slow number, in a show too besotted with fast ones, which gets overborne with ritual blasting. Doesn't contrast count for anything, when celebrating a musician who was such a master of the art? A pity, for the voices here are arguably all rather good. But they, and even the partially but not mainly guilty band strummers, be they sextet, septet of octet, with their immensely subtle individual talents and magical instrumental detail, deserve better than to disappear amid an all-obliterating acoustic hash. 

All 25 numbers are by Freddie Mercury and his Queen colleagues – and what numbers they, or most of them (there's one patent musical dud), are Although some are ‘worked in' to the story in an uneven or haphazard-seeming way, to hear them alone is quite a treat.

A spot of bother with the thought police for  Pop (the delightful Kevin Kennedy)

One of the most gripping is ‘These Are the Days of Our Lives', first heard, poignantly, in spring and early winter 1991, the year of Mercury's death, also the inspiration of Roger Taylor (who, with Freddie's other fabulous colleague, guitarist, vocalist and now 60-plus Doctor of Astrophysics, Brian May, was closely involved in at least mentoring the show's best aspect, the musical arrangements).

‘These Are the Days of Our Lives' was sung in Sheffield by Kevin Kennedy (usually it is Ron Castell or two other understudies), and was truly involving and simply exquisite. With this measure of poignancy, it should have been reentitled ‘Those were the Days…'. Pop, the curious librarian (ie harbour of knowledge) Kennedy plays, is a slightly lugubrious character in apparent mourning like Neil in The Young Ones: and aptly enough, it was Nigel Planer who sang the role in the initial London run. Pop is one of the real treats of this show.

No worries about limp direction in his case: his life is a shamble anyway. Pop's strange, troglodyte-like existence brings home the loss suffered by all except the cardboard baddies and the mostly invisible Globalsoft: what it means (as Orwell saw) when art, life and individuality are crushed out of you all in one.

What a great Musical this might easily have been. Brian May's amazingly visceral title song, ‘We Will Rock You', one of many unchallengeable masterpieces in this shows, certainly hit the rafters and solar plexus alike. It was a pity, however, that even in the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody' encore, this all too apologetic, puzzlingly low-level effort came so near missing.  

Roderic Dunnett

Newcastle Metro Radio Arena Fri 7 – Sun 9 Jun; Belfast Odyssey Arena Wed 12 - Sat 15 Jun. Further dates on sale soon. 

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