BWW Review: KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE, Arts Theatre
The trouble with having the kernel of a good idea is that things can go nuts quite quickly - and so is the case with this new musical, Knights of the Rose.
Jennifer Marsden's good idea was to get a Game of Thrones vibe going, knit a story from 87 (yes, 87 are cited in the programme) literary references - Shakespeare, Chaucer, Byron etc. etc. etc. - and season that heady mix with stadium rock standards. As far as I know, it's never been done before - and there's probably a good reason for that.
Our heroes - knights in Doc Martens and fly-zip jeans with swords with no apparent heft at all - belt out Bon Jovi's "Blaze Of Glory", and we soon learn that King Aethelstan's men are in some kind of medieval war with Avalon. We're not told why. But they're soon back at court where the princesses have been er... "Holding Out For A Hero" and everyone is "Addicted To Love".
All should be well, but Sir Palamon hatches a plot to dispose of buddy yet love rival, Sir Hugo, and secure Princess Hannah for himself. When the knights are mustered for another battle (nobody knows why), he sees his chance - but after all they've been through together, will Palamon actually off Hugo when push comes to shove?
Meanwhile, poor Sir Horatio pines for Emily, but she's promised to heir to the throne, Prince Gawain, so he's er... I'll say blocked from his heart's desire.
I think that's the plot, but it's hard to discern any coherent narrative, as characters don't really speak to each other - they throw clumsy quotes about that jar against each other and then sing what are often facile lyrics (the songs were never intended to carry a story beyond three minutes, less if you account for reprises and choruses).
And what actually happens, happens so slowly and with such frequent repetition, that your mind drifts to conjecture on how everyone involved feels about a show so radically at odds with the conventions of dramatic structure.
Since nobody really says anything, there is no character development at all in over two hours of breathless action. The knights are all alpha males with varying degrees of enthusiasm for fighting and the women all fairy tale princesses or flagon-flaunting wenches, their worth solely the product of the birth and their looks. The women in 1971's Carry On Henry were given more agency than the eye candy unapologetically presented on stage - in 2018.
Which is a shame, as Katie Birtill and Bleu Woodward sing very well indeed and really try to make something out of roles that barely register one dimension, never mind three. There are pleasing voices amongst the knights too - Andy Moss and Matt Thorpe stand out - and Ruben van Keer does what he can as a clunky narrator. The performers (actors and musicians) really do deserve much more than they're given.
Quite suddenly, deaths of sons and lovers are forgotten, and there's a panto-style wedding climax to finish things off, so we can all leave smiling.
It's probably best to treat this jukebox musical as 95% jukebox and 5% musical - go with the crowd-pleasing anthems and not wonder too much about how anyone could have thought that "Everybody Hurts" was the right choice for that particularly solemn moment.
If they went the whole hog and put the lyrics up on the screen for us to sing along, there might even be a cult winner here, but, for now at least, it's all so serious and so ill-judged that even that pleasure is denied.
Photo Mark Dawson