Book, music and lyrics: Bob Eaton
Director: Bob Eaton
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
It’s hard to categorise Roll Over Beethoven. Billed as a high-energy new musical telling the story of a Britain in flux between the dreary post-war days and the explosion of American Rock ‘n’ Roll, it also steals much of its storyline from Hamlet – helpfully naming characters Johnny Hamlet, Uncle Claud and so on, and having much of its action in the Elsinore club, a typical 1950s palais de danse. There is even some blank verse and almost-quotations from the bard himself. This may not sound like the typical template for a fun night out, but Roll Over Beethoven wins by simply not taking itself at all seriously and playing the whole thing for laughs.
Johnny Hamlet ends his national service in the RAF just in time to bury his father, John Hamlet, who ran a music shop in partnership with Henry Polonius and is widely judged to be the most boring man ever. In particular, there’s no room in this shop for any of these new-fangled electronic instruments or any music other than the classics.
John returns as a ghost to tell Johnny that his brother and wife are responsible for his death. Matthew Devitt plays this massively over the top as he pleads with Johnny to get revenge, popping up in unexpected places. Meanwhile, Johnny meets Ophelia and they fall in love, but Johnny’s habit of seeming angrily to talk to himself leads Ophelia to attempt drastic action. Writer Bob Eaton wisely stops short of echoing the entire, somewhat depressing, plot of Hamlet, so we get happy endings all round.
It takes a little while to hit its stride, but once one has bought into the concept and accepted the show for what it is – an unashamedly feel-good, paean to British comedy and rock music – one has a ball. The songs are all original including funny and witty lyrics. They typically remind one of established songs so one feels a sense of familiarity. That doesn’t mean that social issues are ignored. There are nods to the social consequences of teenage pregnancy and even of being gay in a time when it was illegal. But the whole is about having a great time – and the audience undoubtedly does.
Michael Fletcher as Johnny does show Hamlet’s descent in a knowing way – and when the time comes for scales to fall from his eyes, it does so immediately and much to the relief of all. Chloe Edwards-Wood is sweet as Ophelia, and her potentially life-changing decision comes over sympathetically. Niall Kerrigan is simultaneously brash and oddly vulnerable as Teddy Boy, Waltzer, working the fairgrounds but hiding a secret that can only be revealed when no-one else is around. Steven Markwick’s blinkered Henry Polonius is somewhat two-dimensional in his hatred of new music. However, lovebirds Claud (Oliver Beamish) and widow Gertie (Georgina Field) are a joy. Reminding one of Only Fools and Horses’ Boycie, Beamish’s Claud loves life and is certainly not an evil schemer. All the cast are actor-musicians, producing most of the music often while dancing and singing too. Bob Eaton’s direction ensures that the mood never slips and the pace is maintained.
Patrick Connellan’s costume designs evoke the era effectively and the simple set works well – though episodes in the second half when our heroes are working at a holiday camp are a little bit fussy as we move in and out of a chalet.
Roll Over Beethoven certainly isn’t great art, but it is great fun. Take it on its own terms and you are bound to have a good time.
Runs until 17 September 2016 | Image:Robert Day