Theatre review: Rock of Ages @ New Wimbledon Theatre

This love letter to the 80s is ultimately an ode to Glee-does-glam-rock though solid performances and production are undone at times by a weak storyline.

The overriding initial impression is volume – both of sound and of hair.

Making both as big as possible seems to be the approach and be damned with any notion of subtlety.

It’s tricky to know if this show represents the nadir of the jukebox musical – quite a feat when Viva Forever still lingers in recent memory – or a glorious parody of the sheer absurdity of musical theatre.

If it’s the latter it’s very well disguised. Deep down plots like this are always the same – only the names change.

It’s a tale of the plucky underdog taking on ‘the man’, a bar is threatened with closure by businessmen and at its heart it’s the story of a guy and a girl.

INSET Noel Sullivan (Drew) and Cordelia Farnsworth (Sherrie)  in Rock of Ages The Musical UK Tour Credit Manuel Harlan

The actors constantly break the fourth wall, as if colluding with the audience in a bid to spoof the form, but it just feels forced and awkward unlike others such as Urinetown whose razor-sharp satire serves to celebrate, as much as skewer, musical theatre.

There’s nothing wrong with the concept of the jukebox musical, just look at the mind-blowing success of Mamma Mia and the Kinks’ storming new effort Sunny Afternoon.

Rock of Ages however is closer to We Will Rock You on the ridiculousness scale – good news if you’re after a long-running success, not so much if you want a complex narrative during two-and-a-half hours of theatre.

Part of the show’s problem is the disparate nature of the song selection which is admittedly by necessity.

I doubt even Richie Sambora would want to sit through an entire musical of Bon Jovi songs and the soundtrack is stronger, albeit less coherent, for its variety.

INSET Noel Sullivan (Drew), Daniel Fletcher (Dennis Dupree) and Chris Southgate (Lonny) in Rock of Ages The Musical UK Tour Credit Manuel Harlan

Despite the cliched storyline the positives of the show are the performances, particularly from the excellent live band but notably from the leads Noel Sullivan and the outstanding, though cruelly-underwritten, Cordelia Farnworth.

The supposed star-turn however is something of a damp squib. Just when the first-half was in desperate need of an injection of energy the anti-hero Stacee Jaxx landed.

Unfortunately Jaxx, played by Ben Richards, was the weakest singer in an otherwise solid cast.

His character supposedly parodies the stereotypical excessive 80s rock n roll star but sadly Axl Rose got there first.

At times it’s clear just how overtly sexist this show is at times even if it will hide behind claims of trying to subvert this.

A woman in a bikini acting as a stripper/sex-worker, even if she is supposedly self-aware, is still being uncomfortably objectified and that’s before we mention the clunky, very 80s, jokes about oral sex.

INSET Chris Southgate (Lonny) and Noel Sullivan (Drew) in Rock of Ages The Musical UK Tour Credit Manuel Harlan

The sad truth is that for all the quality of the band, the inevitable slickness of the production (as one should expect after three years), the undeniable efforts of the cast and the familiarity of the soundtrack, what lets Rock of Ages down is a non-existent storyline.

If you’re looking for a light and frothy 80’s music-fest then this might be just the ticket but if you’re after something more robust you might need to find your rocky kicks elsewhere.

Pictures courtesy of Manuel-Harlan, with thanks

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