BWW Reviews: ROCK OF AGES, Shaftesbury Theatre, Sept 22 2011
On entering the Shaftesbury Theatre on one of the multiple press nights for Rock of Ages, the usher beseeched me to buy some alcohol. I was already well aware that at this particular show they encourage you to drink throughout, with staff walking round trying to sell you as much booze as possible. Regardless, I turned down his kind offer. And then he continued his sales pitch: "Really, you need to. It's the kind of show you need to be drinking for."
How very true.
Oliver Tompsett (Drew) has a beautiful voice (I would quite happily listen to him sing all evening); and the ever-hilarious Simon Lipkin as Lonnie narrates the show beautifully. The beautiful Amy Pemberton isn't as strong as one might expect from a West End leading lady, but that might partly be because her character Sherrie is so thoroughly underwritten (although the dreadful writing is a problem for everyone, not just her).
As for the two celebrities, on whom so much of the pre-publicity has focused, Justin Lee Collins is tuneful enough; Shayne Ward's performance is peculiar in that his voice doesn't quite seem strong enough for musical theatre, his diction is poor, and his acting needs work, yet he still has a compelling quality about him (one might call it the x-factor, I suppose, but I'm avoiding that gag) - with time and study he could be a genuine star. Jodie Jacobs is the only one of the principals who seems completely comfortable with the rock genre, but the lack of genuine rock singers on stage isn't a problem - the musical numbers are performed well (although, as someone who loves the genre unironically, some of the staging pained me - but I suppose that's a matter of taste).
But Rock of Ages is a nasty show. This is not because it is a jukebox show; indeed, so few songs are performed in their entirety it's hardly a jukebox, more a sampler. It lies in its embarrassment at its own existence: it laughs at musical theatre conventions, it breaks the fourth wall, it mocks its own material (both the Eighties rock, which one might expect, and its own freshly-written script).
It's not the only show to do that, of course; the one that most readily sprang to mind as a comparison was, weirdly, Spamalot. But that poked fun with affection and in the context of a farcical fable.
Rock of Ages includes jokes (or mockery, depending on your interpretation) about gays, lesbians, transsexuals, foreigners, bestiality, paedophilia and death. They're cheap gags, shoved into a crude, lazy script. Again, Spamalot too includes a plot twist where a character you wouldn't have expected turns out to be gay, but we're not encouraged to laugh at him because of his gayness. (Legally Blonde, of course, uses the same "gay or European?" question in There! Right There! as Rock of Ages does with its camp German henchman; but again, Blonde does it with style and taste and gentle humour rather than crudity.)
It's egregious that the female half of the cast spend their entire time in their underwear, grinding their buttocks in the faces of the front row, and yet the gay characters completely avoid kissing - in fact, the very idea that they may kiss is exaggerated and played for laughs.
Oh, and speaking of the female characters, they're all virgins or whores, of course. Strippers are the same as prostitutes, barmaids are the same as their patrons, and they all dress in their underwear. There's a point when Lipkin joins in with the female ensemble, and everyone laughs heartily when he pulls up his shirt to reveal a pasty on his nipple - it's hilarious when men are objectified like that, you see, but women are supposed to be scantily dressed and decorative.
I am sure I'll be accused of "taking it too seriously", but there is nothing to stop a musical being light-hearted, funny and "serious" (just ask Legally Blonde) without being grossly offensive. Musicals have a tough enough time as it is without shows like this sullying their good name.