Review by Harry Bower
The Sunset Strip, 1980-something. Los Angeles is being gentrified and the very soul of rock and roll is at risk of selling-out. Enter the cast of Rock of Ages, a by now surely very well known jukebox musical which places its audience at the centre of the battle for music, love, and dreams.
This is a show which has been wheeled out at every opportunity over the past twelve years. After making its West End debut in 2011 a film adaptation featuring Tom Cruise and Russell Brand was released in 2012, and a UK tour ran between 2018-19. And here I go again on my own, taking a trip to Bromley to witness it on its final countdown – the farewell tour. So, is it good riddance or a fond bye for now?
Full disclosure – I absolutely love 80s music. And I’m a pretty big fan of jukebox musicals. Sure, they might sometimes be paper thin on plot and sure, they are rarely big thinkers – but you can’t dispute they are usually a lot of fun. It is fun on which this iteration of Rock of Ages stakes its biggest claim – it is face achingly funny, goofy and cliché in only the best ways.
The story focuses around the proposed closure of the Bourbon Room, the withering career of deviant and cliché rock and roll star Stacee Jaxx, and the dreams of two lovers. Sherrie Christian, a country girl moved to the city to find fame and Drew Boley, a wannabe rock star. The plot may be its weakest attribute, but when the music is this good, it seems to become all the more forgivable.
The band in this production are to be applauded for their authentic recreation of some of the best-known rock songs in history. Liam Stevenson (guitar), Alex Ward (guitar), Elliot Mason (bass) and Steve Hynes (drums) are on-stage for pretty much the entire show representing the narrative’s infamous rock band, Arsenal, and they are ably directed by Liam Holmes (musical director).
This production remains largely faithful to the original book and as usual the stand-out characters are Lonny the narrator and Dennis Dupree, founder of the Bourbon Room – a true refuge of rock and roll glory days. Lonny is played with a wise yet youthful carelessness by Tim Oxbrow. It is a performance which acts as the foundation of the show, and Oxbrow ably drives the plot along at pace regularly interacting with the audience and providing light relief. Kevin Kennedy of Coronation Street fame reprises the role of Dupree, after playing it in previous iterations of the show, and is excellent thanks to his comic timing which is a huge highlight.
Sherrie Christian and Drew Boley are played by Gabriella Williams and Sam Turrell respectively. Both offer something different in their portrayal of these naïve kids trying to make their way in the world. Williams’ assured Sherrie demonstrates just the right amount of vulnerability to have the audience feel for her when things go wrong, but a healthy dose of confidence which reassures us things will get better. Turrell plays Drew with the stupidity required from the show with aplomb, but it is his singing voice which blows us all away.
If the overall success of this show were left simply down to its comic timing, set design and the quality of its musicians, we could proclaim it a five-star production. Unfortunately it struggles with technical errors, dark patches of lighting in several areas of the stage, a somewhat overbearing sound design, and a giant (and great) set which has too few ensemble members to fill it and make the Bourbon Room feel alive and breathing with the soul of rock and roll. A few questionable accents, song arrangements, and some wooden physical theatre contrasts with generally brilliant performances from much of the cast assembled for this tour.
Despite some challenges and pitfalls, this iteration of Rock of Ages does deliver a fantastic night out. It is cheeky, self-aware and somewhat charming in the way it disarms its audience with its comedy leading to one of the most fun nights out I’ve had in a theatre in recent times. Frequently I found myself wanting to punch the air, sing along to ‘Poison’ and slow dance to ‘Night Ranger’. The people around me were on the verge of rocking out too, and as I watched everyone get to their feet in the curtain call to dance and sing along, I was reminded exactly why I love this show.
Rock Of Ages is unapologetically crowd-pleasing. It doesn’t pretend to be high-brow, or slick in its intellectual commentary on society, or have anything else to say other than: “hey, let’s have a really fun night together”. However, in a world full of darkness, doom and gloom – we could all use a bit more of that.
Rock of Ages will be melting faces with guitar riffs at Churchill Theatre Bromley until 11 February 2023, thereafter playing around the UK including Aberdeen, Blackpool, Truro, Swansea, Newcastle, and more.
Photos by The Other Richard