Review: WE WILL ROCK YOU, London Coliseum

Under Pressure? More like under-pleasured.

By: Jun. 07, 2023
Review: WE WILL ROCK YOU, London Coliseum

Review: WE WILL ROCK YOU, London Coliseum Whether We Will Rock You will attract the attention of Trading Standards is unknown but rarely has a show been so poorly named.

In the early 2000s, this Queen musical both figuratively and physically dominated the London musical theatre landscape, running for over 4,600 shows at the Dominion with a huge statue of Freddie Mercury above the theatre entrance. The plot – such as it is – pitches global leader Killer Queen, a herd of Yuppie followers and her dystopian regime against the our hero Galileo Figaro, his “chick” Scaramouche and the Bohemians. Killer Queen wants to ban rock music, the Bohemians want to revive it and…that’s basically it. Calling the story wafer-thin would give wafers a bad name.

The dialogue in Ben Elton's book seems caught on the horns of a dilemma. Does it strive to be an overworked collection of rock references strung into some vague semblance of how a human being talks? Or is it happy to settle for being a smug bunch of musical in-jokes, cheap gags and well-worn tropes which will have us sighing in the aisles? By some impressive feat of verbal dexterity, it achieves both.

The humour rarely rises to the level of dad jokes (the Beatles are namechecked as John, Paul, George and Bingo) and we never really care much of a muchness about most of the characters. The chemistry between Galileo and Scaramouche is scarcely credible and their banter (example: “I’m an old soul”/”You’re an asshole”) veers from the predictable to the risible. Entire exchanges are just song titles bolted together, “Baby, we were born to run!”/”Don’t call me baby” being just one soul-shrivelling instance.

Taking over from Nigel Planer in the original run, Elton himself appears as Pop, leader of the rebels without a clue. When not acting the unwoke fool and mangling words like “videotape” for negative funniness, he gives himself a solo; the William Shatner-style rendition of “These Are The Days Of Our Lives” manages to turn a nostalgic tearjerker into something emotionally vacant.

Whichever way you look at it, Elton’s plot is (as the sparky Scaramouche would say) utter bollocks. Killer Queen wants to ban rock music but has no hesitation personally blasting out stone-cold rock classics like “Don’t Stop Me Now” from her throne. She wants to keep the population docile by having them hooked to their screens but none of her own Yuppies are seen doing anything except dancing around. Despite professing only the most basic knowledge of rock, the Bohemians are able to sing “I Want It All”. Then there's Pop, a man who lacks the mental wattage to operate a VHS machine but can somehow hack into a global computer system.

Not done with being nonsensical, the book is also outdated and the show as a whole compares poorly with other jukebox musicals. Shoehorned nods to the metaverse and more recent terms can’t hide the millennial references to iPods, cyberspace and Teletubbies.  A mention of AI is unfortunate; it’s hard to believe ChatGPT couldn’t create a better script in a fraction of the time it took the author and comedian to come up with what is seen here.  

Galileo is given an American accent while Killer Queen has a Caribbean one because, well, we’re not sure why. At one point, Elton breaks character to rail against train privatisation in a call back to his stand-up success of the 1980s. Oh, the lols. We Will Rock You shares much of its melodic and theatrical DNA with the Bat Out of Hell musical, with both based on a dystopian future where rock music is banned. The difference in experience, though, is gobsmacking with the latter having multi-dimensional characters we care about, a story which hangs together, stadium-sized songs which relate to the plot and a far more imaginative approach to props and theatrical technique.

The cast, led by Elena Skye as Scaramouche and Ian McIntosh as Galileo, does a brave job but – with two exceptions - generally lack the singing ability to fill this grand auditorium. X Factor semi-finalist Brenda Edwards is simply phenomenal as Killer Queen with her performances receiving the loudest cheers of the night. Lee Mead - almost unrecognisable under a thick beard and shades as her lieutenant Khashoggi – makes minor but important vocal contributions. His duet with Edwards on “It’s A Kind Of Magic” is one of the standout moments in a production that certainly could have done with more powerful voices.

In a prologue, Elton notes the critical savaging that this musical received when it first launched in 2002. What he failed to mention were the highpoints of We Will Rock You. Then, as now, hearing the eternal hits of Queen played out loud and live in an immense venue is a visceral experience that can’t help but fire up the soul. Queen is, after all, a band that did for rock in the 1980s what the Beatles did for pop in the 1960s and were just as successful with their singles as well as their long-players. Their Greatest Hits album was – like this show – initially mauled by the critics but ended up being the first LP to sell over six million copies and, by July 2022, had spent over a thousand weeks on the UK Albums Chart.

Sir Brian May popping up at the end to shred some guitar during the encore performance of (yes, you guessed it) “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a welcome touch on press night but neither this nor the zippy dance sequences and intelligent stage design were enough to obliterate the memory of what had come before. The opportunity to ditch the highly underwhelming book with its strained dialogue and daft plot has been missed and the show is the worse for it. Considering its assault on the audience's intelligence, perhaps We Will Mock You would be a better title.

Under Pressure? More like under-pleasured.

We Will Rock You continues at London Coliseum until 27 August.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan


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