We Will Rock You

Music and lyrics by Queen, book by Ben Elton
Sunderland Empire and touring
(2009)

Production photo

The Empire was packed for the official opening of We Will Rock You in Sunderland (it had previewed the night before) and there is no doubt that, given the huge enthusiasm of the audience from the beginning to the long standing ovation at the end, it will remain so until the run finishes on 27th June. Its fans are - well, fanatical: I spoke to one man who was seeing it for the eleventh time. He sees it at the Dominion every time he goes to London and has done since the show opened in 2002. I suspect he wasn't alone in that, but even those who were coming to it for the first time were almost delirious by the end.

The show was totally panned by the critics when it first appeared. In the Guardian Brian Logan gave it two stars and wrote, "it would be hard to imagine a less appropriate vehicle for the band's music", whilst the Independent's Fiona Sturges said, "Sound bad? You don't know the half of it." And according to The Mirror, "Ben Elton should be shot for this risible story."

And it went on to be a huge hit.

So how did the critics get it so wrong?

Well, they didn't. Not really. The story is thin, the humour varying between the mildly amusing, the obvious and the juvenile, the packaging wildly at odds with the "message", but - and it is a very big but - it gives us accurate and compelling versions of the music of one of the greatest rock bands of the twentieth century in a presentation which is a curious but very effective blend of rock concert and music video.

The performances in this touring production are impeccable. Kevin Kennedy's aging hippy Pop (one can see exactly why Nigel Planer was the first to play the part!) gives every indication of having fried his brain on acid and goodness knows what else but connects with the audience in a wholly sympathetic way.

Alex Gaumond convinces as the bewildered Galileo, the Dreamer, and makes a pretty good replacement for Freddie Mercury in many of the songs. As his punk love interest Sarah French-Ellis makes the most of her many one-liner put-downs (she gets some of the funniest lines in the show) and her singing is raunchy and powerful. Brenda Edwards' Killer Queen is a dominating stage presence with a real diva voice, who more than once reminded me of Eartha Kitt - and there can be no bigger compliment than that!

Wayne A Robinson (Britney) and Georgina Hagen (Meat) provide excellent support but I was not totally convinced by Jonathan Wilkes' Khashoggi: he simply does not have the stage presence to be the menacing figure he should be.

If we treat We Will Rock You as a piece of music theatre and look beyond the music and the effects, then we have to say that the critics were right: it is really a rather weak piece of work: but if we regard it as a celebration - indeed, an almost tribal celebration - of some of the greatest rock music ever, then we have to go along with the audience who were delirious with pleasure and excitement - even before Brian May appeared at the end. Then excitement knew no bounds!

Touring to Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh

David Chadderton reviewed this production at the Palace, Manchester

Reviewer: Peter Lathan