When it opened at London’s Dominion Theatre in 2002, as the most expensive music theatre ticket on the West End, We Will Rock You was critically derided for its “sixth form” premise and Ben Elton’s risible script. Twelve successful years later, Time Out magazine’s London edition still continued to print its original review for the show that finished with the derogatory line, “Don’t give them your money”, despite the fact their directive had been proven completely ineffective.
A faithfulness to the production standard of Queen’s music and to the soul of live rock music had overcome the preposterous libretto. Fans of the band, along with a tribe of audience members who would normally never set foot near a musical, had spread the word that the show truly brought to life the energy of attending a rock concert and a hit was born.
This staging retains all that vitality and the stomach trembling audio amplification that a rock concert should bring, ensuring lovers of Queen and rock music in general will not be disappointed with what they hear. Any hopes harboured for a fresh or reinvigorated production are scuppered however, as besides a few pop-culture references in the script, very little has been changed and certainly nothing has been upgraded over the thirteen years since We Will Rock You last opened on the Regent Theatre stage.
The story, in the greatest of British pantomime traditions, is as unashamedly over-the-top ridiculous as you could imagine. If Mamma Mia feels like it wedges ABBA’s songs into a silly storyline, then We Will Rock You grabs Brian May’s guitar and hammers them into the ground with a ludicrous plot set 300 years in the future.
Earth, or the iPlanet as it’s now known, is controlled by the Globalsoft corporation – owned by the ruthless Killer Queen (Casey Donovan) – an organisation that governs musical consumption, so that the ‘Ga Ga Kids’ all listen to the same computer generated music, wear the same clothes and have the same thoughts and opinions. Musical instruments are banned and rock music is unheard of. Of course, in a world of repression and authoritarianism, there are always non-conformists and young graduate Galileo (Gareth Keegan) is desperate to ‘break free’. He hears lyrics from classic rock songs in his head, although he doesn’t recognise them, and when he dismisses his teacher’s instructions to ignore the feelings, Khashoggi (Simon Russell) – commander of Globalsoft’s thought police – arrests him and sends him for ‘processing’ along with fellow black sheep Scaramouche (Erin Clare). But the power of rock is strong and soon the pair find themselves on the run, joining a bunch of Bohemians and searching for the axe to save them all!
It’s pretty ridiculous frankly, but really the plot is just there to stitch together, in the loosest possible way, a bunch of Queen songs and to perform them with meticulous attention given to replicating the original sound of the music. If you’re going to worry about the sturdiness or plausibility of the plot, this is not the show for you!
With that said, it does take a little more than just a great band and excellent singers to make a show like this work brilliantly. Colour, light and spectacle are all important and the 2002 London production achieved all this. Fourteen years and a squeezed touring budget later, the sparkle has gone off the design of this show somewhat. Awe-inducing hydraulic staging affects and multiple video screens dancing around the stage have been replaced with a single panoramic screen and a, more often than not, empty stage for Arlene Phillips’ dated choreography to fill, number after number. CGI has come along massively in this time, yet the majority of the animated video projections used contain the same tired old low-resolution footage as the original production. When finally a new video sequence is shown late in the second act, its high definition quality serves to prove how poor the rest of the vision looks.
Despite Ben Elton’s attention to ensuring that the musical references he litters throughout the script are relevant, he seems to have ignored the need to update technological references that make his dialogue often seem laughable in today’s world of touch-screen tech. Could anyone believe that in 3 years’ time, let alone 300, kids will be ‘running home to get online’ or that we’ll still be ‘clicking an arrow and dragging to trash’? The book needs thorough revision through a futurist’s lens if it doesn’t want to be perceived as farce.
But, as has always been the case, We Will Rock You’s strength is in its musical performances, and under the tutelage of Musical Director David Skelton, there is no disappointment on that front. The 8-piece band absolutely rock out Queen’s music, and guitarist Simon Croft (with resplendent, Hair-Metal appropriate barnet) does Brian May proud. Keegan and Clare hit all the right notes and Jaz Flowers (as Oz) respectfully modulates the beautiful Freddie Mercury tribute song ‘No-One But You’. Brian Mannix is perfect casting as faded rocker Buddy, demonstrating skilful comic timing along with an unblemished vocal.
Thern Reynolds is both sexy and funny as he brings Bohemian rebel Britney to life, while Simon Russell delivers excellent vocals and comic chops as Khashoggi. Casey Donovan is done no favours by hair and costumes (if you’re going to cast a younger actress, why do you have to dress her like an old lady?), but it doesn’t stop her from belting her way beautifully through badass numbers like ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘Killer Queen’.
Sadly, somewhere in the show’s evolution Killer Queen’s number ‘Play The Game’ has been ditched for the thoroughly dull and relatively unknown track ‘Now I’m Here’, however the new inclusion of favourite ‘You’re My Best Friend’ is a welcome addition to Galileo and Scaramouche’s romantic plot development.
This is far from being the best show you’ll ever see on stage, but that being said, it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. This is unabashed worshiping of one of Britain biggest rock bands of all time, that pays respect to rock music of all kinds. If you love the music of Queen, you’re bound to get a thrill out of We Will Rock You.
For more information and tickets: http://wewillrockyou.com.au/