Confession time: I’ve never seen the film School of Rock and didn’t see the stage show during its London run. Before seeing this touring production I hadn’t a clue what it was about – I knew there were kids playing rock but that was it. So I came to this show with no preconceptions or expectations. You, gentle reader, are much more in tune with modern cinema culture than me, so you already knew that it was about lazy no-hoper and rock music aficionado Dewey Finn, who takes a supply teacher job in a posh prep school, pretending to be his ex-band member friend Ned Schneebly (who genuinely is a supply teacher), because the money’s good and he’s behind with the rent. Dewey, of course, hasn’t a clue about teaching, and knows nothing about kids, many of whom seem to be quite a lot smarter than him. All he can do is teach them appreciation of rock music; and when it turns out that they are a very musically gifted class, he prepares them to enter a Battle of the Bands contest. Obviously, this isn’t going to go down very well with snooty Miss Mullins, the headmistress; nor the parents who fork out an arm and a leg to get the kids through the exclusive exams. But music has a way of saving the day – and if you don’t know what happens, you’ll have to see the show to find out.
There’s a lot to admire and enjoy in this production; there are also a few things that I didn’t care for at all, but then I am an (occasionally) grumpy old git where it comes to the two things that set this show apart from most others: rock, and kids. I was surprised to see that the show really appeals to the family market – at last night’s performance there was probably even more children present than you would expect at a pantomime. Some were laughing (a lot) all the way through; others, including those nearer to us, were slumped in their seats and pretty unresponsive. I guess it takes all sorts.
There’s no doubting the full-blooded commitment to the show from the entire cast and creative team. Visually, it looks excellent. All the school scenes absolutely capture that rather stiff and starchy pristine bookishness of a prep school; the rock concert scenes featuring Dewey’s ex-colleagues in the band No Vacancy remind you of those heavy metal concerts your mother said you should never go to unless you want to ruin your hearing. And talking of the music – yes, it’s very rocky and it’s very loud. I’m no expert on this musical genre, but it sounded very proficient and genuine; I don’t know if rockstars today still wear that outrageous make up and costumery, but this lot did, and it looked impressive. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s compositions for the show (I suppose you could call them compositions) are unmemorable but authentic.
The downside of the loud music – as is frequently the case, sadly – is that a lot of the lyrics of the songs were simply inaudible. And that is a shame, because I got the feeling they were rather witty for the most part – but I reckon I only understood a third (at best) of the words they were singing. I couldn’t tell if it was an issue with over-amplification of the band, or poor enunciation of the singers; possibly a blend of the two. The clearest (and fantastic) singing comes from Tia Isaac’s Tomika, whose unaccompanied Amazing Grace is sheer joy. I also really enjoyed Rebecca Lock (as Miss Mullins)’s performance of Where Did the Rock Go, probably the outstanding song of the show.
As Dewey Finn, Jake Sharp throws himself into the role all guns blazing, creating a very larger than life character; a part crammed with physical comedy sometimes verging on the grotesque, but he carries it off with total conviction and the kids obviously loved him. Personally, I found the character of Dewey really difficult to get on with; in real life he’d be a laddish plonker who would really get on your nerves. But as an eccentric music teacher, I guess he’d be just about bearable! Rebecca Lock is also very good as Miss Mullins –another character that presents as either strident and humourless, or completely lets go with the help of just one drink and a Stevie Nicks karaoke. For me, not a believable character, but in the context of the show it doesn’t matter; and Ms Lock is a great singer, no question. Matthew Rowland and Nadia Violet Johnson both go over the top with the caricatures of Ned and Patty, milking the excesses of both characters to the extreme – but this is definitely what the script calls for, so – job done. Amongst the other adult cast, there’s good support from Ryan Bearpark as Zack’s demanding and unforgiving father and Richard Morse as Billy’s football-loving father.
But what the show is really all about is the kids. Twelve super-talented and eminently watchable children, who grab their characters by the throat and go all-out to entertain and impress. For me, Daisy Hanna as Katie stands out with her terrific bass playing and stage presence, and I love Harry Churchill’s attacking Zack, owning the stage with his charisma and the pure joy of playing. Local lad Angus McDougall is brilliant as the unflashy Lawrence who comes to life when he’s behind the keyboard; his unassuming personality mixed with his Elton John jacket and boots is a hilarious combination. Evie Marner’s Summer is delightfully bossy and priggish, and comes into her own when given the job as band supremo. But they are all excellent, and I am sure a lot of entertainment careers will be born out of the show.
I said near the beginning that there were some things I didn’t care for. Primarily I can sum them up in one word – the book. Julian Fellowes is a writer of enormous experience and success, but I found much of the text really scraped the barrel for humour and characterisation. Some of the characters are just too cartoony to be believed. Most of the female characters in the show are bossy and difficult, and the suggestion that the trouble with the head teacher is that she needs a good…. defrosting is disappointingly sexist. And then, when that largely turns out to be true, it sends an even worse anti-feminist message. Getting the kids to pretend that they’re all dying of some terminal disease to get on to the Battle of the Bands is tasteless in the extreme. The joke about Mama Cass is body-shaming, the lines about Billy’s glamrock outfit are borderline homophobic, and there’s an extremely dubious joke about paedophilia. It’s full of lazy stereotypes, very formulaic, and dependant on grossness for humour – as when Dewey rubs himself all over (intimately) with a towel and then chucks it over a child’s head, or when he’s considering eating his belly-button fluff. I’m afraid I didn’t get on with the book AT ALL and, cardinal sin of the theatre, there were plenty of scenes when I was bored. The show is at its best when the kids are rocking the joint, and when you come away from the show, that’s what you (thankfully) remember. I fear much of the rest of it is padding. But I know I’m not the target demographic for the show, and at the end everyone was on their feet, clapping and swaying away. Admittedly, that’s in part because they were told to by Mr Sharp! The UK tour continues until mid-August.
Production photos by Paul Coltas
Four they’re jolly good fellows!