The place was buzzing when I arrived at the beautiful New Wimbledon Theatre for press night! From the start people were ready for a great night, expecting classic music and upbeat performances. And to be fair, that was delivered in shedloads. In fact, this cast was outstandingly talented; from the lead performers to the musicians, to everyone in the ensemble. But somehow I left the building confused and more than a little disappointed.
Rock of Ages is basically a juke box musical, built around classic rock tunes from the 1980s. We hear ‘The Final Countdown’, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, ‘We Built This City’ and other solid anthems of the time, with the performers absolutely rocking the house down. I could list the whole cast as fabulous singer and actors, with some of the smaller roles such as Franz (Andrew Carthy) and Justice (Jenny Fitzpatrick) really punching above the weight of their casting. The music is hung loosely on a girl-meets-boy story of young people coming to LA to achieve their dreams, but struggling to do so.
My difficulty was that, although the cast did what they did so unquestionably well, this show is desperately in need of updating, verging at times on Benny Hill! The production attempts to gloss over the flaws by playing it ‘tongue-in-cheek’, but lingering 1980s stereotyping, racism and shallowness undermines the joy of the evening. It starts with that incredibly talented ensemble member (Erin Bell) riding a bike across the stage with her butt hanging out: that’s what we’re supposed to look at, not the actress. Disappointing. And it goes downhill from there. The whole strip club thing is an excuse for sleazy titillation: if Sherrie is forced to become a stripper, why can’t Drew? Or maybe they could both deliver pizza? Or he could deliver pizza in his undies. And is it really still funny to laugh at fake pubes hanging out of a leotard? That’s just sexist and a terrible distraction from Gabriella Williams’ obvious ability as an impressive comic performer and singer.
Much of this could be fixed: take out the WWI spiked helmet that stereotypes Germans as warmongers and adjust the offensive accents; put some pants on the girls or take some clothes off the boys, but balance it out – if Love Island can do it so can you (and that’s bad enough!). I’m sure many of the audience would like to see the incredibly talented Luke Walsh oiled up and muscly (whilst of course appreciating his astonishing vocal range).
Come the curtain call, the lovely Kevin Clifton celebrated the fact that we’d all come through the Covid restrictions, with live theatre finally back on stage. And I truly share that feeling – I want these amazing performers back in their glorious splendour; but not like this, undermined by their material. This cast deserves so much more than what they are given to work with. Tweak the script, even out the ‘panto’ style gimmicks and this show could be a five star winning night out.
Written by: Chris D’Arienzo
Directed by: Nick Winston
Produced by: Dan Looney, Adam Paulden, Jason Haigh-Ellery and Richard Klin for DLAP Group
Sue Gilad and Larry Rogowsky
Rock Of Ages plays at New Wimbledon Theatre until 25 September, before touring nationally through to September 2022. Further inforamtion and booking via the below link.