Touring – reviewed at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
Having come to Rock of Ages with no prior reference other than the 2012 film version (mostly memorable for featuring a surprisingly entertaining performance from Tom Cruise) I was, let’s say, unprepared for the stage show. It’s an altogether louder, more unsavoury affair.
Lightyears away from the sun-dappled romance of La La Land, the LA of Rock of Ages’ mid-to-late 1980s is a grimy cesspit of drugs, booze and other sticky substances that don’t bear contemplating. All that dare enter the backstreet bars in search of fame and fortune are doomed to failure. The show opens to the slamming riffs of David Lee Roth’s ‘Just Like Paradise’. Quite.
Emceeing our journey into the world of pleather, hair-crimping and screaming guitar solos is ex-drummer turned sound guy, Lonny (Lucas Rush). Lonny’s role is to simultaneously take the piss out of musical theatre and 80s hair-rock, as his frequent pirouetting, jazz hands and jokes about White Snake and ‘serious theatre’ demonstrate. Rush builds up a rapport with the audience and plays Lonny with enough tongue-in-cheek humour to just about get away with the more questionable aspects of the narrative.
Drew (Luke Walsh) is a cleaner at the Bourbon Room bar but dreams of rocking the world as his superstar musician alter-ego, Wolfgang von Colt. There he meets Sherrie (Danielle Hope), a wannabe actress and the girl of his dreams. After a series of misunderstandings and one-night-stands the two are separated; Drew is signed to a record label and Sherrie is forced to work as a stripper in the Venus Gentleman’s Club.
Add into the mix rock frontman and serial perv, Stacee Jaxx (Sam Ferriday), a couple of camp German businessmen, and a ‘right on’ activist named Regina (rhymes with vagina) and you’ve got a musical that leaps from oddity to oddity.
Post-#MeToo, Rock of Ages seems borderline offensive in its objectification of women and presents a world in which sexual assault and exploitation is a just a joke and results in no ramifications. Knowing that Strictly Come Dancing’s Kevin Clifton is due to take over the role of Jaxx next year one does wonder how his squeaky-clean image will be affected by blasé jokes about statutory rape… (yes, I know it’s only ‘acting’, but it seems an odd role with which to make his stage debut). Chris D’Arienzo’s book also features ‘jokes’ about Nazis, the LGBT community, bestiality, mental illness and more. It’s fair to say the lack of irony means most of them don’t exactly have the audience rolling in their seats. The best gags are the cleaner ones, believe it or not. Rush’s general mickey-taking is amusing, and there are some good gags at the expense of the film and the casting of Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy as Dennis.
The second act certainly shows more heart with its celebration of friendship (‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’) – although the feelings that Lonny and Dennis admit they have for each other are decidedly non-explicit, a weird contrast to the endless tit and cock gags that precede it – and expressions of regret (‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ is a musical highlight). The finale featuring karaoke classic, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is a rousing high to end on, although I still begrudge being told to ‘get up and join in’.
Danielle Hope is as watchable as ever in a role that is quite a departure from her Dorothy days. She makes the audience care about Sherrie, a role which is otherwise underwritten, playing her with a characteristic warmth and honesty. As Drew, Walsh is an undeniably excellent singer, reaching high notes most can only dream of, and his relative innocence is a nice contrast to the other male characters’ sleaziness.
My bewilderment is perhaps influenced by seeing Rock of Ages at a midweek matinee; with a half-full auditorium of less-than-enthused retired couples it must have been a chore for the cast to raise a party atmosphere. Yet, for what should be an uplifting piece of escapism, the show is ponderously pessimistic. My prescription: less grime, more glitter and female empowerment.
Rock of Ages is touring the UK, currently booking up until July 2019. For more information please visit: http://www.rockofagesmusical.co.uk/tour/
The cast of Rock of Ages.
Credit: Richard Davenport.