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Rock of Ages – Sunderland Empire

Book: Chris D’Arienzo

Director: Kristin Hanggi

Reviewer: Mark Clegg

It’s the mid-to-late eighties on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. Drew (Noel Sullivan) is a budding rock musician working in a run-down club. Sherrie (Cordelia Farnworth) is a country girl, new in town and full of dreams of fame and fortune. And this being a musical, we follow the rocky path to their eventual happy ending together, while along the way we are treated to some of the greatest rock songs of the era as made famous by the likes of Whitesnake, Twisted Sister, Journey and Pat Benatar. It’s like Mama Mia with big hair and tight leather pants. Or We Will Rock You without Ben Elton’s ridiculous script.

The story is pretty thin. The Strip is threatened to be torn down but Jack Lord’s evil German developer to make way for a generic shopping mall while Drew and Sherrie’s blossoming relationship is torn apart by the arrival of rock diva Stacee Jaxx (Ben Richards clearly having a lot of fun in what amounts to an extended cameo).

Despite featuring some great songs from the era, the first act drags as the plot and the relationships between the initially sketchy characters are set up. The only people who make a real impression here are the over-the-top Stacee Jaxx and Stephen Rahman-Hughes’s Lonny who acts as a narrator/Greek chorus throughout and displays a fantastic ability at working an audience and managing to hold their attention. A prolonged mime featuring an imagined over-sized body part is a highlight.

Happily, the show really kicks up a notch following the interval as secondary characters come to the fore and the tone becomes more comedic. Here more time is given to Lonny and his hippy boss Dennis (Daniel Fletcher, playing to perfection) as well as Jessie May’s activist Regina and Cameron Sharp’s camp German Franz, both of whom are simply stunning. The double-whammy of Franz and Regina’s hilarious ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ followed immediately by the equally funny ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ as sung by Dennis and Lonny leaves the audience crying with laughter. Also Sullivan and Farnworth’s initially bland central couple come into their own in the second act. They make an appealing couple and both are excellent in their rôles.

The show is at its best when being self-referential and demolishing the fourth wall – Lonny even refers to the programme at one point – and although D’Arienzo’s script is full of ‘80s references, it always laughs with the era, not at it. Hanggi’s direction is strong by being surprisingly musical theatre, with great emphasis on comedy business, and Kelly Devine’s choreography fits perfectly, an obvious high point being the raunchy strip club-set ‘Heat of the Moment’!

By the time the anthemic ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ is belted out by the entire company as a rousing finale, the audience have fallen in love with the characters and rise to their feet as one for a much deserved standing ovation. If you don’t mind infrequent swearing, some very erotic exotic dancing and the occasional inappropriate activity with a llama, then this show is a rock solid must-see.

Runs until: Saturday 2nd August

Book: Chris D’Arienzo Director: Kristin Hanggi Reviewer: Mark Clegg It’s the mid-to-late eighties on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. Drew (Noel Sullivan) is a budding rock musician working in a run-down club. Sherrie (Cordelia Farnworth) is a country girl, new in town and full of dreams of fame and fortune. And this being a musical, we follow the rocky path to their eventual happy ending together, while along the way we are treated to some of the greatest rock songs of the era as made famous by the likes of Whitesnake, Twisted Sister, Journey and Pat Benatar. It’s like Mama Mia…

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.