BWW Review: SCHOOL OF ROCK, New London Theatre
Andrew Lloyd Webber may seem an unlikely rock god, but he's managed to harness anarchic musical liberation for this big-hearted, irresistibly entertaining new show, adapted from the popular Jack Black film. Its success on Broadway looks likely to be replicated here, given its broad appeal, hummable hits and giddy, live-action-cartoon hijinks framing the seriously impressive talent of its miniature tween rockers.
David Fynn is the freeloading, failed rock star-turned-fraudulent substitute teacher Dewey Finn, who intercepts a call intended for flatmate Ned Schneebly and impersonates him at snooty prep school Hoarce Green in order to make a quick buck. On discovering his class has rock potential, he turns them into a band in order to best the one that kicked him out at competition Battle of the Bands.
Aside from a couple of syrupy numbers that halt the show's momentum (and mire us in wide-eyed stage school performance), the score is a rockin' good time, Lloyd Webber's dynamic numbers peppered with witty, rebellious lyrics from Glenn Slater. Anthemic head-banger "Stick It to the Man" is the take-home tune, but "You're in the Band" is a real crowd-pleaser, and Dewey's "When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock" a fiery take on the traditional "I want" song.
Fynn brings a wild, puppy-on-speed energy to Dewey, keeping his more egregious behaviour palatable - the pratfalls and spit takes make it hard to seriously castigate him. He's also in touch with his inner misfit child, allowing him to bond with the pupils whose parents ignore or fail to understand them, or who feel alienated from their school community. Fynn excels in those quieter moments, when he speaks to the kids on their level.
That therapeutic aspect lends weight to what is otherwise a schlubby man-child living out his fantasies by duping children. It's less radical a concept than its creators seem to think (and the inspirational teacher using contemporary music is such a hoary trope that Lin-Manuel Miranda just skewered it on Saturday Night Live), but it's always worth making the passionate case for arts in schools: not just as a measure of achievement or something to put on a UCAS form, but as a means of bonding, self-expression, confidence-building and the encouragement of creativity and individuality.
However, there is a strange irony at the core of this show that trumpets revolution and challenging the status quo, yet concerns the advancement of a straight white man and is written by two Tory Lords, with Julian "Downton Abbey" Fellowes providing a decent book that adheres closely to the film. The gender politics are particularly dubious, with the three most visible female characters painted as killjoys who must have their power stripped from them.
Preeya Kalidas is sadly wasted as Ned's shrill, dream-crushing, mean-mommy girlfriend (that Ned asserting dominance over her gets a round of applause is pretty uncomfortable), while Dewey enthusing that the class star, the bright, assertive Summer, could one day run for President now rings grimly hollow.
Florence Andrews has the most to work with as uptight Principal Mullins, who reveals the pressure she's under from parents paying through the nose for this regimented education and bemoans the fact that she's turned from a Stevie Nicks-loving soul into a "bitch" (though would the same negative label apply to a man in her position?). Andrews gives her plenty of endearing quirks, plus a comic but still impressive "Queen of the Night" rendition and soulful ballad.
But this is really all about the phenomenal kids, and watching these pint-size rockers in action is truly thrilling. I saw Lois Jenkins, hardly bigger than the bass she handled with such cool confidence, energetic drummer Jude Harper-Wrobel, honey-voiced Nicole Dube, keyboard maestro James Lawson, and the astonishing, guitar-shredding Tom Abisgold.
Audiences are so disbelieving that the young performers are actually playing that director Laurence Connor signals it with a pre-show message and by having the accompanying musicians ostentatiously down tools and cheer the kids while they're rocking out. It's a smart choice, allowing you to fully enjoy the visceral thrill of watching that talent live - the one area where the musical easily surpasses the film.
Anna Louizos's fluid set wittily juxtaposes Dewey's messy bedroom with the pristine, wood-panelled school, and there's plenty of enjoyable pastiche for older members of the audience, from riffs on classic rock to Summer auditioning with an off-key version of "Memory". For sheer family fun, this latest addition to the West End is top of the class.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton