Benet Catty Productions

School of Rock (WE 2016)

Nov 28, 2016

New London

Few people have been more supportive of Andrew Lloyd Webber over the course of their theatre-going life than me. The show that gave me the theatre bug was Joseph... starring Jason Donovan in 1991. Any list of masterpiece musicals that does not include Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita is a flawed list. Cats and Starlight Express have inspired generations of children into the wonders of live theatre. At his best he is unbeatable.

School of Rock is not his best.

It\'s a hit in New York and has been commended by many of the London papers. But to my eyes and ears, excepting his last show (the crushing bore Stephen Ward in 2013) and his Northern Ireland musical (The Beautiful Game in 2002) it is his worst.

Based on the 2003 Jack Black film of the same name, School of Rock is about a freeloading aspiring rock star Dewey Finn who filches his way into a job at a posh school teaching music to ten year olds. He skips Beethoven and Bach and teaches them the wonders of rock, assembles a band and enters them into a competition. Many of them come from unloving family backgrounds (the theatre shorthand for \"rich\").

Might the posh parents find renewed love for their offspring if they prove to be able to jump up and down while playing an electric guitar? Guess.

A story about the healing value of artistic endeavour is an appealing one - it\'s like Billy Elliot but with music rather than dance, or Matilda but with Stevie Nicks the inspiration rather than Dickens. The story of the central character becoming re-inspired in life by the kids he\'s trying to re-inspire in education is a fun and funny concept.

And there are actual ten years olds playing actual instruments and singing actual music live on stage. (We are told this noisily before the show begins: did they think we\'d pay 70 a head for them to mime?)

All of these exciting ingredients suggest a juggernaut entertainment for young and old.

The problem is that so much of the show\'s 2 hours and 45 minutes running time is absolute rubbish. It\'s like Dead Poets Society or The History Boys with the volume turned up and the brains taken out.

School of Rock is humourlessly and ploddingly written, cheaply and sometimes embarrassingly sentimental, overwhelmingly cliched and at least an hour too long.

In a world in which billionaire blow-hard Donald Trump will, from January 20th, have access to a nuclear arsenal and Dulwich-educated former stockbroker Nigel Farage is hailed as a champion of the people, it is perhaps unsurprising that Lord Lloyd Webber and Lord (Julian) Fellowes should write a rock musical in which contemporary American ten year olds learning about The Stones. But they are a bad match for their material.

The insanity of a multi millionaire who owns seven London theatres writing a number called \"Stick it to the Man\" need hardly be amplified. He is the living, breathing embodiment of The Man.

Fellowes, meanwhile, displays a complete tin ear for how his characters might actually talk or think and is unable or unwilling to see a single cliche without hurling himself at it like a granny\'s knickers at a Tom Jones concert. So of course the little camp boy loves Barbara Streisand and of course the silent girl turns out to sing like Beyonce.

Director Laurence Connor brings no sense of pace to the proceedings and continues his propensity - demonstrated in other recent work - to go for cheap sight gags rather than grown-up character relationships. So we have a husband getting embarrassed when faced with his (fully dressed) wife\'s bottom, someone else spit-takes, and a pair of gay dads mince around in a style that John Inman would have recognised forty years ago.

The choreography by JoAnn M Hunter is great if you\'re a fan of seeing ten year olds jump up and down a lot and then pose for big tableaux at the end of numbers. If you like what used to be called \"dancing\" then you\'ll be better served by literally every other musical in London.

Leading man David Fynn has a big part to fill and lands some laughs with lines from the film (fans of calling children \"douche\" and pratfalls off desks are well served). His leading lady Florence Andrews gets what she can out of a one-dimensional part but it\'s the kind of show where someone takes their glasses off to show they\'ve become cool.

The kids play the music brilliantly but acting-wise the characters are beneath them, in a completely different orbit from what Matilda or Billy Elliot require of their child stars.

If they were the entire show then I would have to concede that even though it\'s not to my taste the show would deserve a grudging B+. But if School of Rock was having an Ofsted, it would be in special measures right away.

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