The 20th Anniversary Tour of this hugely successful show charges headfirst into Northampton for a week that’s already virtually sold out. Any show that can stimulate such anticipation and excitement is obviously doing something right. Cards on the Table time: I’m not really a fan of Queen. I know, I know, pipe down with your faux-outrage. But I’ve always found their style to be overblown and self-important; and the continued reverence about their output by the media and fans hasn’t made it any easier for me to start appreciating them. And indeed, when We Will Rock You makes direct reference to Queen it’s by elevating them to a cult religious status, which I find a right turn-off. There are a handful of their songs that I like; but the prospect of 2 hours 45 minutes of undiluted Queen made me feel bilious. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that far and away the best thing about this show is the music! More of that later…
The opening sequence strongly recalled a musical that I truly hated: Dave Clark’s Time, a pompous, vacuous show from 1986 that we endured for what felt like several hours at London’s Dominion Theatre (which is where We Will Rock You held sway for an extraordinary twelve years). I clutched my armrest wondering if I was going to hate this too. And, overall, I didn’t. But I have some big reservations about it.
Let’s accentuate the positive. Production-wise, it’s magnificent. At the back of the stage, constantly changing images, cameras, LEDs and so on provide a wonderful depth to the stage action, suggesting mood, locations, and the mindless backing masses who populate the sterile Gaga World into which the iPlanet has developed. (Bear with me). Sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed at the back of the stage is Zachary Flis’ amazing band who whack out the familiar numbers with gusto. It’s loud, by the way – very loud. At times my seat rumbled with reverberation so much I though I was preparing for take-off. Kentaur’s costumes and wigs are a production in themselves, reflecting the power of the oppressors, the simplicity of the protagonists, and the eccentricity of the Bohemians. Visually the whole thing is astounding.
There are also some fantastic individual performances. Almost entirely across the board, the female performers outshine the guys at every level. Martina Ciabatti Mennell’s Meat has a great voice and personality and brought enormous brightness to her role. As the ultimate baddie, Jenny O’Leary’s Killer Queen has an extraordinary stage presence and a belter of a voice. For me, the complete star of the show is Elena Skye as Scaramouche. The first thing Scaramouche does is sing Somebody to Love (a song I had never previously rated) and it was captivating, moving, gutsy and utterly brilliant. She is a fabulous singer, gave a fantastic characterisation to the role, and had the best feeling for the comedy of the piece of anyone in the cast.
Ah yes, the comedy. The book is by Ben Elton. The Man from Auntie. The writer of witty, satirical, provocative, inventive novels. The man behind the inspirational anarchy of The Young Ones. The creator of arguably the best sitcom every written, Blackadder (well, series 2 and 4 anyway). His job was to devise a cunning plot that incorporates Queen songs and provide entertaining bridging material between them. So was he as cunning as a fox that’s just been made Professor of Cunning at Oxford University? No. I’m racking my brain to think of a book to a musical that’s more lame and lamentable than his contribution to We Will Rock You. His hero, Galileo, speaks in song lyrics; funny the first time, but it quickly palls. And whilst the early part of the show allows for some of the songs to fit in nicely with the plot, by the time we get to the second Act all hell breaks loose and they get plonked in Wherever, whenever (damn, I’m doing it now.) Elton obviously couldn’t fit in Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions and We Will Rock You into the story, so they’re just an addition tucked into the end of the show. To be fair, there are two jokes. One is visual, when Galileo and Scaramouche decide they need to be careful when they settle down for a night of nookie. The other relates to the length of Brian May’s guitar solos. Otherwise it pootles along punfully; most of the characters are two-dimensional – those who aren’t are one-dimensional. It would need a gifted, independent director with a highly developed critical filter to keep this show on the straight and narrow. Remind me who the director is? Ah yes, Ben Elton. I don’t expect he suggested many cuts.
The plot itself also doesn’t bear much analysis. Set sometime in the future, live music is banned, and anyone who attempts to play music is punished. Hang on, isn’t that the plot of Footloose? Anyway. There’s a bunch of rebels called the Bohemians (geddit?) who are like a religious cult who believe there is a sacred text (which basically contains the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, not that they know that) and who have a few relics, including an old television and a video tape. It’s bizarre then, that, for presumably decades of misery, no one ever thought to put the video tape in the video recorder underneath the TV. Also bizarre that they mispronounce “video tape” “television” and “Brian” as though they were some long-dead foreign language, even though they pronounce everything else from that same language correctly. They’ve never heard of America, but they do understand the concept of Paris (Killer Queen lyrics) and Euro-Disney (lame joke). I’ll leave the textual analysis there, I think.
If it wasn’t for the Queen songs, the show would be dire. But then, without Queen, the show wouldn’t have existed! As a non-fan, I really enjoyed my two favourite songs Killer Queen and Don’t Stop Me Now, and Ian McIntosh as Galileo did pull out all the stops for a rousing performance of We are the Champions at the end. So it’s a resounding yes to the production values, music and star performances, and a resounding no to the book. The more you like Queen, the more you’ll like this show. But the incorporation of songs into the plot, and the “comic” element of the text made me realise what a masterpiece Mamma Mia is.
P. S. The book for Time is worse. Time thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. At least We Will Rock You doesn’t take itself seriously.
Production photos by Johan Persson