Book: Chris D’Arienzo
Director: Nick Winston
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
So, let’s dust off the Jukebox musical list: Lovers? Check. Business tycoon antagonist? Check. Glam Rocks’ greatest hits? Check. A flamboyantly fabulous narrator who also doubles as a sassy sound god. You betcha’. Welcome to Rock of Ages, not the usual Jukebox musical.
Set on the glorious Sunset Strip in the late eighties – dreams are lofty for the likes of Drew and Sherrie (Luke Walsh and Jodie Steele). They meet at the famous Bourbon Room owned by Dennis (Kevin Kennedy) and his associate Lonny. True to form, they fall in love – don’t admit it to one another and make mistakes, take gambles and drift apart. All as a sex-starved misogynistic singer robs Sherrie of her early chances and an occasional goose-stepping German buys out the club. It’s quite straight forward really.
Our strutting narr-a-tor Lonny, on paper, should not work. When in reality Lucas Rush carries the character with such fine comedic timing, giving every ounce of energy and charisma that it’s impossible not to find him endearing, hilarious and a highlight of the show. His interactions with the audience break down any barrier reservations, encouraging all to rock out.
Vocally – there are little to no faults with abundant talent and admirable control from our lead performers. Most notably Zoe Birkett, playing Justice, owner of Venus ‘gentleman’s’ club. Nick Winston’s direction knows where and when to utilise Birkett. In closing numbers, we can see how staging is constructed so she delivers the final notes. Her control is sensational. Whilst sharing the stage with the likes of Steele, who herself is vastly talented, the effortless delivery Birkett offers is remarkable.
Rock of Ages breaks the fourth wall, stamps on it and later invites it onstage to take a bow. It’s balanced as both pastiche and parody to sell itself. Whilst skewering the tropes of Andrew Lloyd Sondheim, (or is that Stephen Webber?) by physically announcing its need for a romantic lead it also pays homage to the great glam rock artists from White Snake to Styx, even Phil Collins gets a brief mention. The in-house band do a stellar job supporting the singers, with dynamic choreography supplied by Winston.
Now. As the production breaks the fourth wall it draws attention to a fault many musicals suffer, glancing into the attitudes of the music industry. It treads the line with performers ‘assets’. Raunchy, red-blooded and empowering some audience members may still find the flesh on display bordering on excessive. For the intelligence of the script, it’s part of the productions lampooning as much as it glorifies. For a general crowd, it’s an oversight they can enjoy. The only flaw is that its female stars, whilst written well only come into their own quite late into Act One.
Productions of a similar ilk – take note. This is precisely how to showcase Glam Rock in all of its thrusting, dark denim glory. Rock of Ages does not angle itself to be something it cannot be, it isn’t trying to tackle intense issues of the music empire. It thrives as its own piece, separate from others it (unfairly) will be held against. Whilst other shows may ‘rock you’ Rock of Ages will rock with you.
If at some point your blood isn’t pumping, a leg isn’t itching to dance, or you aren’t laughing – chances are you’d rather spend an evening with the Guardian. From the outset the audience of Rock of Ages are slaves to the beat, surrendering themselves over from quiet theatregoers to gig-screaming fans. If you think you’ve experienced a Jukebox musical – you haven’t until you’ve lived through Rock of Ages.
Runs until 4 May 2019 then continues touring | Image: Richard Davenport