Sarah Holt finds out if Andrew Lloyd Webber manages to turn it up to 11 with his new West End musical School of Rock.
School of Rock didn’t have an easy audience member in me. Having not enjoyed the 2003 film that much, I arrived at the New London Theatre thinking the musical version might have to twist my arm in order to make me like it.
Let’s get this straight, my reason for not enjoying the film wasn’t exactly an existential one. The storyline itself is fine. It’s the tale of failed rock star wannabe (Dewey Finn) who blags himself a job in a prestigious school to earn rent money, and ends up making a rock band out of the starchy-collar kids in his class.
I think my problem with the film was that it just felt a bit hammy, and its 2003 star, Jack Black, seemed to over egg his role a little (sorry die-hard Jack Black fans).
Fortunately, School of Rock the Musical’s charm offensive started before I’d even entered the auditorium. Dotted around the theatre’s bars, there are photo booths, pinball machines, and a band practice area, complete with musical instruments, where people can pose for pics on social media.
As a result of this, and the activity it attracts, I found myself finding my seat with a smile already on my face.
Pictured: David Flynn and cast.
Throughout the course of the first act, the smiles graduated to giggles. The show cooks up the comedy by using one part witty one-liners to one part slapstick comedy.
Examples of the former include ‘I’ve been touched by your kids. And I’m pretty sure I’ve touched them (parents gasp)’, and the latter comes in the likes of people simply falling off chairs and falling over at strategic times.
There are several other factors that contribute to the fact that it’s hard to find a frown during a performance of School of Rock.
Firstly, and most obviously, the show’s messages all have the feel good factor. You watch as kids with the weight of the world on their shoulders discover their own personalities and potentials for the first time, and you observe as Dewey finds his own purpose in life.
The songs have the life-affirming quality, too. How can you not grin when a stage full of actors is shouting out the lyrics Stick it to the Man with such force that the floor of the auditorium is quaking?
Secondly, the show is really animated and its energy is infectious. The set is in a state of almost constant-flux. There’s a travellator-style moving floor, which means actors can be constantly running or walking, without running out of stage space in which to act. Scenes change in rapid-fire.
Plus, choreography is used, not just for the aesthetics of a dance routine, but as a story-telling medium, too. A lot of the dance moves have meaning rather than being just for show, and are used to enhance the emotion in a scene.
Pictured: Florence Andrews as Miss Mullins
And then there are the kids. I had concerns about what it would be like to watch a musical where the primary cast was made up almost entirely of children. Would it feel like a high school musical, or a family-only show? The answer to this is a resounding no.
By the time the second act came around, I’d completely forgotten that the actors I was watching on stage had mostly single digit ages. By the final number, when Dewey’s band performs in a Battle of the Bands competition, I was so absorbed by watching the young talent on stage that I didn’t pay a blind bit of attention to what Dewey was doing.
There’s a revolving cast of young people. On the night I went to see the show, I was especially impressed by Lois Jenkins who played Katie – a pixie-sized pig tailed girl who went to town when it came to playing the bass guitar.
And then there was Tom Abisgold, playing Zack, whose guitar solo was goose-pimple good. I’d go so far as saying it was up there with the guitar solos of Return to the Forbidden Planet fame.
If there was any point that I had concerns during the show it was at the end of Act 1. By this point I’d already concluded that School of Rock was a funny and enjoyable musical, but it was missing the sort of love story that makes a musical truly great. Would Andrew Lloyd Webber let a show go by without the Phantom/Christine factor?
The answer is no. The love story was to come in the second half. In fact, the scene in which Dewey and headmistress Miss Mullins go to the pub together was one of my favourites in the show. Florence Andrews who plays Miss Mullins does a brilliant job of playing drunk and her solo of Where Did the Rock Go? made me want to go home, whack it on Spotify, and have my very own Bridget Jones moment in which I poured my own heart out to the music.
For me, School of Rock the musical is better than the film. Now I’m probably biased, but I felt David Flynn’s comic timing and characterisation was actually better than Jack Black’s. And seeing the rock music live is infinitely better than seeing it on screen.
I think diehard fans of the film will enjoy the show. David Flynn doesn’t diverge away from the original Dewey character too greatly, and many of the lines in the musical are the same as in the movie.
For anyone who’s not seen the film at all, this is a happy-go-lucky production that offers a welcome bit of respite to the headlines that have hit over the past weeks. The New London Theatre offers a welcome Time Out.