New London Theatre
23rd June, 2017
I would describe seeing School of Rock as a nostalgia trip – except it feels like only yesterday that I saw and fell in love with the 2003 (!!!) film. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater and Julian Fellowes’ musical adaptation is an affectionate and faithful take on the original, which rightly places its child cast centre stage. Before it even started The Dark Lord’s (ALW’s) voice boomed from on high, emphatically informing us that the kids play their instruments live every night. It’s as if Matilda and Rock Of Ages have been chucked in a blender and the result is a fun packed show with a rock concert energy, full of charm and cheek.
The main plot expansion in the musical is the addition of a deeper insight into the kids’ home lives. The touching ‘If Only You Would Listen’ highlights the gulf between parental expectations and a child’s wish to express their individuality, aspirations and problems. Likewise, we get a better sense of the liberation that music practice with Dewey gives them, and the way he embodies everything they wish their parents (and other teachers) did – fun, non-patronising, inclusive, providing a listening ear, and most of all, he recognises their capabilities and praises their diverse talents. However, Fellowes’ book borrows heavily from the film – the majority of the jokes are pretty much verbatim. It may be a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, but it does beg the question as to why such a well-known writer was hired in the first place.
After several duds including the misguided Love Never Dies (which was admittedly, more the fault of the preposterously overblown book) and (by all accounts) the dull and bemusing Stephen Ward, Lloyd Webber is back on form here, perhaps due to returning to the rock music foundations with which he established his name. While School Of Rock doesn’t quite display the ambition of the high concept Jesus Christ Superstar, the tunes are loud, catchy and tell the story just as well with original music as the film did with its soundtrack of 60’s and 70’s rock classics. Stand out songs include ‘You’re In The Band’ and ‘Stick It To The Man’, which stylistically is a pounding mix of Matilda’s ‘Revolting Children’ and Spring Awakening’s ‘Totally Fucked’. Lloyd Webber and Slater also do a fine line in parody, as seen in the opening song ‘I’m Too Hot For You’, sung by rival band No Vacancy, which perfectly captures the ego-tastic essence of hair rock: all style, and no substance.
Holding the show together, Stephen Leask is an absolute pro. He displays pitch perfect falsetto, an unexpected flair for acrobatics (I imagine it takes some skill to perform a simultaneous backflip and bellyflop! And without a crashmat. Ouch!), great comic timing, and a natural chemistry with the kids. Most importantly, Leask is not doing a Jack Black impression – he’s his own Dewey, but maintains all the enthusiasm, goofiness, and sarcastic wit of the iconic character. Yet, without the child cast, to put it simply, this show would not work. These kids are insanely talented. They sing, act, dance and play instruments live during every performance and they do all this while standing shoulder to shoulder with their adult counterparts, and more often than not, stealing the show from them completely.
Catchy tunes, jokes that fall just on the right side of ‘PG’, and an atmosphere that buzzes with the vitality that only live music can conjure; for a feel-good family show that doesn’t overdo the cutesiness or sentimentality, School of Rock is a must see, and can stand proudly within ALW’s oeuvre.
School Of Rock is currently booking until January 2018.
|Original London production artwork|