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Rock of Ages review

The rock-out, raucous musical makes its first-ever visit to Leeds.

Rock of Ages at Leeds Grand Theatre - Credit Richard Davenport
Rock of Ages at Leeds Grand Theatre - Credit Richard Davenport

After a delayed opening at Leeds Grand Theatre following some unexpected technical difficulties, Rock of Ages rolls into town at full speed on the final leg of its national tour.

Rock of Ages opened on Broadway in 2009 and soon spawned a hit movie adaptation. Capitalising on the kitsch revival of late Eighties’ pap and a wave of nostalgia for a time that taste forgot, the musical quickly found its audience in 30-somethings reflecting on their youth. Yet a decade on, that appeal seems less certain.

Rock of Ages is a straight-up jukebox musical set somewhere between ’85 and ’89 in West Hollywood. When the Bourbon Bar is threatened by a nasty corporate takeover, power ballad rock attempts to save the day. Meanwhile, a love story straight out of Grease steers the narrative to its inevitable conclusion, where the boy gets the girl and rock prevails…

Conceptually, Rock of Ages offers paper-thin storytelling and it would be generous to suggest it merely pays homage to some of the great rock musicals. An effusive narrator, played by Adam Strong with outrageous flair, borrows more than a touch of influence from Hair‘s Berger and Rocky Horror‘s Dr Frank-N-Furter. But the brilliantly flirty performance works, helping to knit together the rock interludes in the absence of an engaging plot.

Eighties numbers come thick and fast thanks to agreeably raucous musical direction from Liam Holmes. The Final Countdown, I Want to Know What Love Is and Don’t Stop Believin’ blast out through a soaring ensemble. More than a dozen other power ballads form the set list, but there’s a predictable formula which somehow makes them all sound rather one-note.

Lucas Rush as Lonny in Rock of Ages. Credit: Richard Davenport.

Credit: Richard Davenport.

In an attempt to revive the flavour of the Eighties, Rock of Ages trawls the depths of historic humour with gags about goose-stepping, strident Germans. A bold move, and not a particularly hilarious one. The first time it’s awkwardly funny, yet by the fifth or sixth enactment it reeks of desperation. Then there’s the sexy comedy…

Honestly, this musical throbs with striptease which would make Benny Hill blush. Going back to Hair for just a moment ⁠— and to prove I’m not a total prude when it comes to flesh on stage ⁠— there’s a memorable scene where the cast strip down to bare themselves during a tender number. It’s an important part of the play, signalling a generation’s vulnerability which is key to the peaceful messaging of the musical. In Rock of Ages, we’re assaulted by an unfunny send-up of Eighties’ glam with gyrating buttcheeks and pole dancing action. It’s sleaze for the sake of it, devoid of poignancy, yet bracketed with cheesy rock music and bad jokes.

That said, the show is mostly saved by a strong cast, with Jodie Steele and Zoe Birkett handing over outstanding vocal workouts. Luke Walsh provides a sensitive portrayal of Drew, a boy seeking stardom and screwing up at every turn, whilst Andrew Carthy steals scenes as the ultra camp Franz — proving you can do a funny voice and command a serious vocal in a single breath.

Special notice must also go to television legend Kevin Kennedy, who always delivers a heart-warming, pointed performance. As aging old rocker Dennis, we’re treated to some of the funniest and engaging moments in the show with a surprisingly good rock vocal.

Rock of Ages is a playful if flawed jukebox musical. It attempts to capture a stadium rock scale and dazzles with some overblown lighting and sound, but the undercooked plot fails to engage more than a passing interest. By the end, you feel as if late Eighties’ US rock is something barely worth reviving in the first place. A diverting excursion for hardcore fans of double-denim, split ends and stilettos, this musical is almost as tasteless as the era which inspired it. It’ll also get you rocking on your feet at the end — whether you like it or not.

Cast: Jodie Steele, Lule Walsh, Kevin Kennedy, Adam Strong, Zoe Birkett, Kevin Clifton, Antony Costa, Rhiannon Chesterman, Andrew Carthy. Director: Nick Winston Theatre: Leeds Grand Theatre Running time: 150 minutes Dates: Monday 29th July to Saturday 3rd August 2019.

Tickets: leedsgrandtheatre.com or call Box Office on 0844 848 2700

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