Review by Daz Gale
Say what you want about jukebox musicals - they are a great way to ensure bums on seats. One of the biggest jukebox musicals is now back in London for a limited season featuring the songbook of one of the worlds biggest bands, Queen - so it seems fitting that they have chosen the London Coliseum, one of the biggest theatres in London, to house this new production of We Will Rock You. But would this new iteration of the show prove a bigger hit than the first time it premiered in the West End (where it was famously savaged by most critics) or is this just fantasy?
First premiering at the Dominion Theatre in 2002, We Will Rock You became one of the longest running West End shows where it enjoyed a 12 year run, closing in 2014. Since then it has been regularly revived both internationally and around the UK for multiple tours. Aside from the brief stops in London, this marks the first time the show has returned to the Capital for a lengthier run - with several updates to the show added in for this iteraion.
We Will Rock You may not have the most taxing plot of any musical but there is still some semblance of a plot there... I think. It tells the story of a group of Bohemians who fight for the right to express themselves freely in a society where everybody is identical. Crucially, music no longer exists in this world so it is down to Galileo Figaro and Scaramouche to restore rock music to the world. But let's be honest - you're not here for the story, are you?
It is of course the music that draws crowds to We Will Rock You. One of the most successful (and greatest, in my own opinion) songbooks of all time, Queen have no shortage of legendary songs and many of them are present here - the majority of which are in their original forms, making them pleasantly familiar (there will be no slowed down jazz versions in this show) though prepare for a few lyric changes to make the story flow a bit better. As expected, this can lead to audience participation throughout the show (Vanessa Feltz can regularly be seen screaming away and trying to invade the stage) but this is encouraged in parts - and who can honestly resist the iconic 'We Will Rock You' clap? However - let's leave 'Who Wants To Live Forever' to the professionals, hey?
How do you take these classic songs and insert them in to the story so they make sense? Well... you don't really. For the most part, these are so blatantly shoehorned in, it doesn't even try to pretend otherwise. However, there are moments where these segue together a bit easily such as the stunning sequence discussing lost legends and leading into the beautful and underrated 'No One But You'. Still, you'll be hard pushed to find another musical with songs as incredible as this - 'We Are The Champions', 'Somebody To Love', The Show Must Go On' and of course 'Bohemian Rhapsody' - the list goes on for a band whose hits and legendary catalogue are completely timeless.
The original We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre was known for its production value – something also widely associated with Queen’s live shows so the recent incredibly scaled back touring version, though understandable it terms of budget necessities, lacked the visual impact that elevates We Will Rock You. This production is somewhere in the middle of that – while not quote on the same spectacular scale as the Dominion, the Coliseum production does boast some impressive set elements with some high production video courtesy of STUFish Entertainment Architects. Though the large stage can feel relatively sparse, the use of video is done to great effect though with perhaps a slight overreliance – feeling like one or two more set pieces wouldn’t go amiss.
One of the strongest elements of this production is the lighting design from Luke Rolls and Rob Sinclair. Anyone who has been to a Queen concert will know how integral the lighting is to the production of the show and this doesn’t disappoint – with stadium style lights transporting sequences to give the feel of a rock concert while really amplifying the scenes. Speaking of amplifying, while elements of the sound design are strong it can be a little loud (which of course is befitting of the rock theme) which can unfortunately mean some of the voices get lost in the mix. Choreography from Jacob Feary is another strong production element as are the costume designs from Kentaur.
Undoubtedly, one of the best things this show has going for it is its cast. In the past, some phenomenal talents have gathered to take on the not always meaty roles and this bunch may be the most talented yet. Ian McIntosh and Elena Skye return to the roles they played in the recent tour to take on Galileo and Scaramouche respectively. Both showcasing remarkable vocal ability and each getting moments to shine with their sensational take on Queen classic including a storming ‘Under Pressure’ and a rousing ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’, they are regularly a joy to watch.
Brenda Edwards returns to the show to reprise her role as Killer Queen, once again showing what a formidable talent she is in a performance that screams both sassy and camp. It’s her vocals that truly impress though particularly in act two where she gets three in a row. Lee Mead once again proves his talents as Khashoggi though feels woefully underused and like an extra song from him wouldn’t go amiss. Writer and director Ben Elton joins the cast for the amended role of Pop, now also the Rebel Leader. With great comic timing including the odd ad-lib on the evening, he is a lot of fun to watch – though the less said about his performance of ‘These Are The Days Of Our Lives’, the better.
Adrian Hansel is a highlight in a fabulously comic turn as Brit, showcasing style, charisma and a voice of an angel – though sadly disappears completely in the shows second act. Together with Christine Allado as Meat, they form a wonderful partnership in the latter parts of the first act with bundles of chemistry that left me longing for more from them later on. As Meat, Christine gets what I consider to be the standout performance of the night in the lesser known number ‘No One But You’ (written by Queen for Freddie Mercury after he died). I widely consider this to be one of the greatest moments in any musical thanks to its poignant listing singers who burned too bright, too soon – if the song chokes me up at the best of times, Christines version was completely breathtaking – the vocal and emotional standout of the evening, I dare say this song has never been performed better over the years.
The last thing to talk about when it comes to We Will Rock You is the book. Dear God, the book! Written by Ben Elton (who also directs) it tends to be a bit all over the place. You can forgive the paper-thin plot but the disappearing characters and cringe worthy shoehorned in song titles and pop culture references make the whole thing hard to watch at times. It is undoubtedly the shows biggest weakness as the writing is shown up for its quality thanks to the exceptional music. While there are moments of brilliance to e found in the writing and regularly laugh out loud moments, others fall flat and make the whole thing feel like a particularly strange panto.
Sometimes, though, you have to embrace the madness. While the book is utter nonsense, once you grow accustomed to it and realise you’re not here to watch the most intelligent show in the world, it becomes a lot easier to grasp and allows you to lose yourself in the sheer craziness of it all. Ben Eltons new self-referencing opening monologue where he talks about the original West End run and its terrible reviews were a great addition – but did I ever expect to hear the words “Mr Blobby” uttered in a musical about Queen? Perhaps not.
We Will Rock You may not be the smartest show in the world but it does have a lot going for it. While the book lets it down somewhat, it is salvaged by a truly incredible cast, some stunning moments and, obviously, that iconic Queen songbook. This is definitely a show that works better on a big stage and this production is a fitting addition to a musical whose legacy defied expectations. While it might not be the champion when it comes to musicals to see in London this summer, hearing these classic songs played out on the stage for generations to come really is a kind of magic.
We Will Rock You plays at London Coliseum until 27th August. Tickets from https://londoncoliseum.org/whats-on/we-will-rock-you/
Photos by Manuel Harlan