New London Theatre, London
TWO LORDS A-ROCKING… Now we know why Lord Lloyd Webber got so grumpy about being summoned back from the US to vote. Been head-down and happy, revelling in his first Broadway hit since Superstar and polishing up heavy-metal numbers for a rabble of underage whoopers, ten-year-old guitarists and mini rock-gods in school blazers. Result: the wildest bunch of swirling, stamping, joyful muppets on a London stage since Matilda, and an irresistible, feel-very-good-indeed show.
With Laurence Connor over from the US to direct a fresh British cast, ALW has a stonking hit on his hands: light, joyful, touching, youthful and musically inventive. Three years ago his wife Madeleine “chased” the rights to the film School of Rock, and he set to recreate it as a new musical.
The film was about Dewey, a failed rocker who impersonates a schoolteacher in a strict dull pushy preppie school to raise the rent, and surreptitiously turns his fourth-graders into a rock band for a contest. The film used rock standards, and while the book (by Julian Fellowes) follows the story closely, Lloyd-Webber’s songs and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are entirely new, and more satisfyingly woven into the developing story.
It’s a romance, a lovely fantasy about a redemptive teacher and a yearning for the semi-fictional days of rock’s rebellious innocence, before the calculating boy-bands and grasping industry managers. It’s a heartfelt plea for freedom, creativity and musicality (ALW, onstage on press night, was almost tearful with pride at his young talent: as I long suspected from those daft throne-shows on TV, the man is at heart a music-master himself).
It’s witty, too: the big stomping “Stick it to the man!” is none the less stirring because Dewey defines The Man as guilty of every vague thing “global warming, Pokemon Go, Kardashians..” . Principal Mullin’s ballad “Where did the Rock go?” as she briefly unbends her martinet strictness is a beauty, full of Lloyd-Webber’s old emotional intervals and soaring romance; delivering it Florence Andrews mourns all of our lost youth: “The world spun like a record, as the music faded out”.. The various quartets and ensembles in which the children plead “if only you would listen” make the hairs on your neck stand up too. Indeed the children – there are three teams of thirteen, all very young – include serious talent on guitar, drums and keyboards, and the characterization: geek, outcast, bossy girl, hidden talent, and gayish stylist, is neat and good-humoured. The staging and choreography swirl and stamp with glee, the children always childlike. The furious parents’ evening scene is a masterpiece of chaotic precision.
And as for the star… David Fynn is a find, an enchanting evocation of a slobbish enthusiast, ambitious dreamer and parasitic pizza-muncher whose selfish longing for stardom mutates into respect and leadership for his plaid-uniformed band of ten-year-olds. He rocks, he leaps, he falls over, he skids across desks, he is abashed and cunning, reckless and feckless and rock ’n roll . Your whole heart, willing or not, goes out to him from the start.
Lovely, altogether. It includes good musical jokes too: one when a girl auditioning attempts a few bars of “Memories” and Dewey howls “never sing that in this building ever again!” for CATS monopolized the New London for 21 years. And another involving Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria. Wait and see.
One prosaic thing I’d mention, being of sensitive hearing: you may want to know that it’s not deafening. I was in the fourth row, and at the sight of the vast speakers (‘the weight of a Land Rover Discovery” says the programme) I cringed in anticipation. I once had to flee HAIRSPRAY with a headache. But the sound is immaculately pitched, not overwhelming even when you can feel the floor shake (not only in the stamping dances: it moves when Fynn falls over, too, he’s a big lad). So if great-Aunt Ermitrude volunteers to take the kids, she’ll be fine. She’ll love it as much as they do.
box office 0844 811 0052 to 12 Feb