It’s unfortunate that Rock of Ages has arrived at the same time as the West End mourns the untimely passing of Betty Blue Eyes, representing as it does the polar opposite of that clever, charming and intricate British original. From the critical noises out there already, there will be plenty of people rooting for this to fail, but truthfully, Rock of Ages is no pig, and within the narrow spectrum of its ambitions, it succeeds on every level.
David Everley of the esteemed Classic Rock magazine contributes an article to the programme for Rock of Ages which dissects the history of the Sunset Strip, the sex, the spandex and the illicit substances which oiled the wheels of that most sticky and awkward of musical trends, 80’s cock rock. He talks about the big tunes, the bigger parties and the bands who presided over them; rock giants like Mötley Crüe, Van Halen and Guns ‘n’ Roses. None of those bands’ music features in Rock of Ages, heck, the eponymous Def Leppard song doesn’t even feature. Chris D’Arienzo thunderously stupid musical pounds and throbs to the obscure beats of Night Ranger, Extreme and Quarterflash, and in many ways that’s the best thing about it. Rock of Ages may have its share of sing-along moments, but to call it a jukebox musical is to suggest that the majority of these songs are popular favourites. This isn’t like flicking through the CD’s in your local pub, it’s more akin to finding a battered old mix-tape under the backseat of your uncle’s Mazda MX-6. For all of its unreconstructed posturing and pelvic thrusting, it’s ultimately all rather endearing. This isn’t Axl Rose mainlining heroin in the wings, it’s the longest support act Journey have ever had.
The plot is roughly as nuanced as the lyrics to your average Bon Jovi ballad, which is truthfully to its overall strength. The simple tale of boyish wannabe rock star Drew (Oliver Tompsett) and equally hopeful actress Sherrie (Amy Pemberton) meeting in hard-up drinking den The Bourbon Lounge is actually refreshing in its simplicity; the pieces falling smoothly if predictably into place with nothing to distract from the never-ending stream of catchy soft-rock wailing and explosions of confetti and glitter. Like a half-remembered evening in a sleazy rock-bar, by the last half hour everything has become a noisy purple blur, and attempting anything too strenuous would be inadvisable.
In fact the book is at its least successful in an ill written sub-plot involving shady German property developers and a few half-hearted attempts at meta-theatricality. Simon Lipkin breaking the fourth wall as narrator is a nice throw-back to Rocky Horror, his overlong digression on the show’s marketing materials is just cheap and irritating. There are also a few jokes which take the non-PC attitudes of its subjects a little too far, there’s an excruciating conflation of European and homosexual and a nasty, lazy piece of transphobia, but they’re not deal-breakers.
The irony of such a crass commercial venture taking frequent swipes at the commercialisation of rock is never far away, but as Foreigner and Europe were scarcely brimming with integrity in the first place, nothing jars too strongly. It’s no Rocky Horror or Little Shop, but it makes We Will Rock You look like a self- important dinosaur.
Shayne Ward acquits himself very well as the archetypal glam rock diva Stacee Jaxx, with a voice that puts most of the rockers he’s imitating to shame. He belts through Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ with great charisma, and there’s not much more the part asks for. It should come as no surprise that Justin Lee Collins, a man who has made a career out of misguided nostalgia, is in his element here as stoned-out bar owner Dennis. What is a surprise is that he can more than hold his own musically, at least with this kind of material, which you suspect he’s been singing in the shower since puberty. Other stand-outs include Jodie Jacobs, who makes up for an appallingly written part with a great, ragged voice and some of the tightest dancing on display.
Kelly Devine’s choreography is rough but full of energy, reflecting production values which are high enough to eliminate the cringe-factor which can so often sink rock musicals. The presence of a skilled house-band at all times gives the numbers a veneer of credibility, and allowing the guitarists to take the final curtain call is a very nice touch.
This is a show desperate for its audiences to have a good time, from the Guitar Hero-friendly playlist to the supplying of fake fire-safety-approved lighters to wave during the slow songs, all stops are pulled, no expense is spared. Barring a dodgy LED video screen, everything on stage looks immaculate, the ushers have been selected for rawk-appeal and the programme is larger than a lot of London venues; but where these measures could feel cynical elsewhere, in the service of a genre defined by its OTT insanity, they all seem one of a piece. If you go to Rock of Ages expecting anything other than the posters suggest you’ll hate every second. If you go expecting the theatrical equivalent of a Twisted Sister album, it’s a great night out. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.