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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Shaftesbury


  Amy Pemberton and Shayne Ward/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

As the team behind this rampaging tongue-in-cheek jukebox musical is well aware, nothing dates quite like popular culture. Chris D’Arienzo’s book is a flimsy lark constructed around the stadium-sized sounds made by all those gaudily long-locked, loud and bombastic bands that dominated the charts when MTV was born.

While songs like "I Want to Know What Love Is," "Don’t Stop Believing" and "Final Countdown" weren’t a cherished part of my youth (not so much wrong era as wrong genre), I certainly recognise them. But whether or not the retro-hits – there are 30 of them – strike fire with anyone’s personal history is irrelevant. The show is so broadly and, by and large, agreeably accessible in musical-comedy terms that resistance is (almost) futile. No wonder so many stars – Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin and Catherine Zeta-Jones, among others – have signed up for the film version. Rock of Ages is camp hard-rock fluff you can sink your teeth into. And now onstage in the West End, it’s an unexpected guilty pleasure that plays like Mel Brooks' This Is Spinal Tap. (Note that the overkill that the last statement implies is intentional.)

D’Arienzo’s setting is the legendary Sunset Strip, and the premise is a load of workable nonsense about a German developer and a corrupt local politician conspiring to close it all down and clean it up for profit. Into this he shoehorns a knowingly hoary, star-crossed romance between Oliver Tompsett’s lanky Drew, a shy wannabe rock star who temporarily sells out to the crass demands of the music business, and Amy Pemberton’s scrumptious Sherrie, a toothsome Kansan whose pipe dream about being an actress is sideswiped by a stint as a stripper.

That’s about all you need to know or, indeed, more information than is truly necessary. More to the point, does the hokum hit home? The answer is a qualified yes. Tony-nominated director Kristin Hanggi and a talented cast – and that includes the ensemble – really go for it. Rock of Ages is knowingly silly and tasteless, whole-heartedly vulgar, sometimes overly frantic and altogether a brash good night out. If ultimately it reinforces gender stereotypes and heterosexual conventions, it just about gets away with it thanks to its wink-wink, nudge-nudge nature. And if every now and again it does more than merely approach being great fun, a lot of that is down to the actors.

The big news in London was the casting of British TV presenter Justin Lee Collins as the nightclub owner Dennis, and former U.K. X Factor winner Shayne Ward as flamboyant lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Cruise’s role, apparently). Collins is okay and Ward better than that. His turn as an incurably vain, glitter-dusted, kinky peroxide blond rock outlaw is an amusing cartoon. But both are outshone by scene-stealing Sandy Moffat’s Franz, the developer’s swish son (‘I’m not gay, I’m just German!’) and Simon Lipkin’s Lonny, sound man cum totally postmodern narrator. Maybe Hanggi overindulges the latter’s self-mocking swagger, but you can understand why; Lipkin is comic confidence incarnate, setting up an instant complicity with the audience that simply never flags. Pemberton and Tompsett are no slouches either, with voices that soar so strongly on a power-ballad, it reminds you why they have that name.


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