BWW Review: ROCK OF AGES, New Wimbledon Theatre
Taking us back to a world of hideous stonewashed denim, huge hair and even bigger rock anthems, Rock of Ages is on a new national tour. The jukebox musical has been doing the rounds since it first appeared in Hollywood in 2005, but this particular version shows that it has not aged well.
The paper-thin plot focuses on sweet Southern gal Sherrie arriving in LA's bright lights. Here she meets the sweet and clean-cut Drew at the Bourbon Club. With the threatened demolition of the club as a background, Sheree is drawn into the murky LA underworld where she ends up working in a strip club. After various misunderstandings, the show concludes with a vaguely happy ending; so far, so predictable.
Overall the production has moments that are very entertaining, showcasing a plethora of musical guilty pleasures with belting versions of soft rock classics such as Starships' "We Built This City" and "The Final Countdown" by Europe. The show is not meant to be taken seriously and the whole cast plays to the crowd. However, this version has an uncomfortable undercurrent of misogyny and sexism that is impossible to ignore.
The show states that it is taking us back to a 'sexier' time. If by sexier it means that the show often looks more like a performance in the strip club than a piece of musical theatre, then that description is completely appropriate. The cast consists of some very talented dancers, but the choreography for the female dancers is over-sexualised and lewd. The humour tries to be cheeky and mischievous, but it is actually mainly crude and vulgar.
Morgan Large's costume design lacks any subtlety. Whereas the men are either in suits or ripped jeans with bandanas, Sherrie and the other girls spend their time outside the strip club wearing miniskirts and shorts that might as well be thongs, bending over to the delight of the male members of the cast. This version of "Bend and Snap" looked dated in the recent revival of Legally Blonde and it fares no better here.
There is far too much attention given to stimulated blow jobs and women straddling men in various states of sexual excitement. It is objectification in the extreme and really makes you question if the producers and Director Nick Wilson have any idea that #MeToo ever happened, never mind feminism in any form.
There are also some spectacularly misjudged moments; the dastardly developers threatening to demolish the club are goose-stepping Germans, shrieking about cleaning up the neighbourhood and almost giving what is far too close to Nazi salutes. How this kind of caricature is deemed funny or even suitable for the stage in 2019 is incredible.
The cast carry on with admirable enthusiasm. Lucas Rush is the standout performer as narrator Lonny. He is very at ease with himself on stage and is a natural with his banter with the audience. He is the most interesting character by far.
Drew is played by a likeable Luke Walsh; he has a good voice, but lacks some of the bright charisma needed for the role. His love interest Sherrie is played by Jodie Steele, last seen in Heathers. She seems to struggle a little with the huge limitations of her role; not even blinking when slapped on the bottom by a stranger or groped by club owner Dennis.
Strictly Come Dancing's latest pro winner Kevin Clifton will be a big draw for the show. Clifton is solid, but lacking magnetism as the seedy rock star Stacee Jaxx. His accent drifts and his singing voice takes a while to warm up.
Zoe Birkett, who was the winning female on Pop Idol back in 2002, plays strip club owner Justice. She is far too glamourous to be the world-weary club mother that her role suggests, but her voice is tremendous, with a great power and soulfulness. She brings some much-needed heart to the show.
Dennis Dupree is played by Kevin Kennedy - probably best known for his role as Curly Watts on Coronation Street. Kennedy brings a welcome comedic edge to the show and is clearly having a great time in the role.
The music is loud, unashamedly naff and performed with huge enthusiasm by the talented band. If it was simply a raucous and cheesy 80s-inspired rock concert, the show would really work, but the paper-thin plot and reductive manner in which it treats its female characters is too jarring to ignore. It should be a fun and frivolous show, but, unfortunately, leaves you with a rather bitter taste in your mouth.
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport