rock cast

Picture: Johan Persson

We will Rock You

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

Let’s be honest, the story here is hardly taxing, but it does it’s job quite splendidly as a vehicle to cram in 24 Queen songs, which, after all, is why people flock to see the show in their millions.

It’s a sure-fire hit, a tap your feet, clap along, wave your arms journey down memory lane and through the back catalogue of supergroup Queen.

We open with Innuendo, get things moving along with Radio Ga Ga and then journey through a collection of greatest - and some lesser - hits building to We Will Rock You, We are the Champions and an encore of Queen’s magnum opus, Bohemian Rhapsody which is given the full dramatic, theatrical treatment.

The journey has a warm cloak of nostalgia for older members of the audience – remember it's 47 years since Bohemian Rhapsody was released – but great music draws in new generations of fans, many not even born when Queen ruled the airwaves.

scaramouche

It’s 31 years since Freddie Mercury died, for instance, and some of the audience were not even around when the musical opened 20 years ago – where, incidentlly, it was roundly panned by the critics, but what do critics know . . . around 15 million people, and counting, all around the world disagreed, and why not.

No one turns up expecting a West Side Story, or an Arthur Miller play, it’s not a classic to be revived again and again, standing the test of time through the generations, it’s a jukebox musical of its time, with some iconic songs and between the songs it’s fun, with some great lines and gags, as you would expect with Ben Elton responsible for the book, there are double entendres galore, sometimes not even bothering with double, and it even has Covid thrown in.

There are up to date references, a dig at X-factor, and don’t miss the witty safe sex gag by the way.

I must be honest the obsession with conversations packed with song titles or lyrics did start to wear a little thin after a while, but then along came a line you knew but couldn’t place and it turned from tedium into a mental guessing game.

The story is simple. The musical is set 300 years in the future on iPlanet, formerly known as Earth, with everything run by Globalsoft in a world where everyone dresses the same, thinks the same, while music, apart from computer generated songs, and musical instruments are banned. Everyone bows down to iPlanet ruler, Killer Queen, played by Jenny O’Leary, a lady with a big voice. She can really belt a song out.

meat

Her henchman is Khashoggi played by Michael Strong who displays a fine baritone under his white 18th century dandy wig.

There is a bug in the perfectly ordered date streamed world though, the Bohemians, a group of rebels who live in a sort of Mad Max camp, called the Heartbreak Hotel. They believe that there was once music and something magical called rock ‘n’ roll, and they live in the hope that one day a mythical being, The Dreamer, will come and unlock the world of music and rock – whatever this rock thing is.

Their leader is Sir Cliff Richard - all will be revealed - played with camp delight by Michael McKell with some of the funniest lines and great timing, and he can sing as well with a fine version of These Are the Days of Our Lives.

As for The Dreamer, well enter Coventry’s Ian McIntosh as Galileo, in deep trouble at Globalsoft for having thoughts and dreams, even quoting snatches of the sacred texts -which sound suspiciously like lines from pop songs.

He is down for reprogramming along with Scaramouche, a class act from Elena Skye, who is a fashion rebel; “They think I’m a communist because I won’t wear pastels.”

McIntosh is excellent, adding some real drama to his role with a good voice to boot while Skye might be small but her voice is as big as they come, together they are brilliant on songs such as Who Wants To Live for Ever, a poignant reminder of the talent and showmanship of Freddie Mercury.

Scaramouche, in the sassy shape of Skye, is more than capable of defending her corner and Galileo is told in short order she is no rock chick or babe, and she don’t suffer fools gladly, or at all if it comes to that. Take her on her terms or not at all.

The pair escape only to find kilt wearing Brit, short for Britney Spears, who on Press night was played for laughs by Edward Leigh. Leigh is the understudy, not that you would ever guess it.

With him is Meat short for Meat Loaf played by Martina Ciabatti Mennell who hails from Italy and is another petite bundle of energy with a huge voice. The pair take the escapees to the Bohemians whose names are taken from long gone singers from the forbidden history, creating a sad moment remembering all those who died before their time in Meat’s beautifully sung, poignant No-One but You (Only the Good Die Young).

With dreamer Galileo arriving at The Heartbreak Hotel we all know the prophecy of the hidden axe, axe being a rock guitar, will be revealed and music will live again, not that it had actually died - even the baddies had their fair share of hits such as A Kind of Magic, Don't Stop Me Now and Another One Bites The Dust to play with - but we know it will all end happy ever after – and so it proves.

The set (Tim Blazdel) is static and relies on lighting (Rob Sinclair & Luke Rolls for Sinclair/Wilkinson) and a video wall (Stufish entertainment architects/Willie Williams) to provide life and variety while the costumes are of two types. There is authoritarian for the Globalsoft police and male inhabitants with non-Marxist pastel shade uniformity for the iPlanet’s Ga Ga girls.

While over at Heartbreak Hotel it was more student dropout squat décor and charity shop reject, designer haute couture.

Which brings in full marks to the hard working ensemble who found themselves with some quick costume changes as they populated both sides of iPlanet’s social divide.

A mention too for the excellent six piece band atop the two level set, hidden behind a curtain in much of the video backdrops but sometimes curtains drawn to reveal them with dramatic effect.

They really are a superb rock band under musical director Zachary Flis, although sound could perhaps be tweaked for balance in terms of band and voice levels - never easy to perfect on first night in a new theatre. Everything is fine until the audience arrive absorbing sound and spoiling settings..

There have been a lot of updates, new lines and new set since I last saw the show back in 2011 which help to keep the show fresh and modern. When it opened in 2002 Facebook was two years away, Twitter two more, and social media had barely moved on from telephone calls and Post-it notes.

Elton, who also directed this production, has absorbed and incorporated the world we now live in which helps to keep We will rock you up to date and relevent.

The result is a fun feelgood musical  packed with great music which will see you heading home with a smile on your face and Queen’s greatest hits playing happily in your own personal jukebox in your head. To 30-07-22.

Roger Clarke

04-07-22  

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