Freddie or Elton? Talking with friends in the aftermath of the recent biopics Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocket Man, the consensus was that although both were excellent films, the Queen story packed a much bigger emotional punch than Sir Elton’s. Queen’s Freddie Mercury of course died tragically young of AIDS in 1991, while Elton is still going strong today, but there’s also a sense that Mercury’s songwriting and performances touched a melodramatic nerve in the heart whereas Elton – though undoubtedly a brilliant showman – doesn’t quite move us in the same way. No doubt that’s a personal preference, and it’s perhaps foolish to compare two such legendary acts, but these are thoughts that enter my head when I think of these artists, which to me are somehow intertwined.
Only one of these cultural titans has to date been given the jukebox musical treatment. It’s surely only a matter of time before the Reg Dwight story hits the stage, but for now Queen are ahead of the game by several years: We Will Rock You opened on the West End back in 2002, and now comes to Wimbledon in its latest touring incarnation.
Much as I love Queen’s music, We Will Rock You is preceded by a reputation for having a laughably absurd book by Ben Elton that shoehorns the big hits into a storyline of distracting silliness. I took my seat with mild apprehension, but I felt forewarned enough to hope that I could take Elton’s artistic license in my stride and if necessary just concentrate on the songs.
Do you want the ‘plot’? Okay then: in a dystopian future, the iplanet (formerly Earth) is a joyless realm controlled by evil big business Globalsoft, who use institutions such as GAGA High School to control the youngsters and make them soulless individuals with no knowledge of the liberating power of rock and roll.
Every authoritarian regime needs a rebel to challenge it, and in this case we have Galileo Figaro (Ian McIntosh) a young mystic who dreams of forgotten heroes of music from Elvis onwards, and is determined to let his visions guide him to liberation. McIntosh is an engaging lead, and certainly has the voice and enthusiasm to get us on board with his mission. His love interest Scaramouche (Elena Skye) is less charismatically drawn (she’s basically rebelling against school uniform), which is a shame as Skye has a powerful voice and I’m sure could inhabit a more interesting character, if the script gave her the chance.
Elsewhere, Killer Queen Jenny O’Leary gives several barnstorming numbers, and the story moves along at a decent pace. To the author’s credit, Elton’s script frequently acknowledges its own ridiculousness, which helps to defuse the cringe factor, and the songs survive triumphantly – particularly for me ‘Under Pressure’, ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ and ‘The Show Must Go On’. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is saved for an encore, presumably as not even Ben Elton could make it work in the narrative of the actual show. And when it comes it’s a very joyful treat indeed.
I left the theatre in a haze of happy nostalgia. If I were Elton John, though, I would think very carefully about how to commit my legacy to the musical stage when the time comes.
Written by: Queen and Ben Elton
Directed by: Ben Elton
Produced by: WWRY Tour Ltd for Phil McIntyre Live Ltd
Musical director and Orchestration by: Stuart Morley
Set Design by: Stufish Entertainment Architects
Lighting design by: Rob Sinclair
Sound design by: Rory Madden
We Will Rock You plays at New Wimbledon Theatre as part of a national tour. The tour runs until 5 September, full dates can be found here.