School of Rock
Score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Julian Fellowes based on the movie written by Mike White
David Ian, Crossroads Live, Warner Music Group, Access Industries Inc and the Really Useful Group Ltd
Palace Theatre, Manchester
One would not wish to tempt fate, but so far, 2022 is a considerable improvement over last year. In 2021, it took six months before I managed to get inside a theatre whereas in the New Year, have gained entry after only four days. Prior to the health crisis, I’d wondered whether Manchester’s Palace Theatre had noticed a gap in the market and was staging blockbusters in what had traditionally been perceived as a quiet period after Christmas. It is possible they are returning to this daring but welcome approach with School of Rock.
Dewey Finn (Alex Tomkins) is a failed rock star and permanent slacker living off the goodwill of his best friend Ned (Matthew Rowland). When Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Nadia Violet Johnson in an impressive professional debut) stands up to Dewey and demands the rent, he responds in his usual cheerfully dishonest manner—pretending to be Ned and accepting a temporary teaching post. Once installed in the posh Horace Green prep school, Dewey realises the pupils not only have access to musical instruments but also ability and talent. This raises the possibility he may be able to restore his battered reputation as a rocker by grooming them into a full rock group to take part in a forthcoming battle of the bands.
Director Laurence Connor is aware the best parodies come from a point of affection rather than criticism. The show opens, therefore, in full Spinal Tap mode with leather-clad, bare chested rockers doused in dry ice and continues this gentle spoofing throughout. Not even Andrew Lloyd Webber is immune; when a pupil sings "Memory" at an audition, a horror-struck Dewey Finn remarks he never wants to hear that song or see that movie ever again. The show is stuffed with memorable moments including the grown-up band rocking out in the orchestra pit and the actors playing the parents of the pupils watching in admiration from the stalls.
The originator of Downton Abbey seems an unusual choice to write the book for a rock musical, but the elite school setting does not push Julian Fellowes too far out of his comfort zone. Fellowes expands the motivation of the pupils from the sketchy background of the movie and brings a dry wit to the show; ‘’I may look like a satanic sex god…’’ remarks the wimpish Matthew Rowland.
Joann M Hunter’s choreography is thankfully age appropriate. There are no embarrassingly sexualised bump and grind movements, rather the foot-stomping, high jumping dancing of the pupils resembles children in tantrum which is perfect.
It would be easy to dismiss the message conveyed by School of Rock, that music—specifically rock music—can be inspirational, even transformative, if not for the involvement of Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is, after all, living proof of the concept as the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which he wrote with Tim Rice, had tremendous cultural impact, and provoked widespread controversy.
It is an easy cheat for the older generation to avoid responsibility by remarking the young are the hope of the future, but the youthful cast members certainly make a powerful impact in School of Rock. To a certain extent this is inevitable—the adults in the show are hardly admirable role models. The men are either work-shy and dishonest or henpecked and submissive while the women are shrews or emotionally repressed.
Faced with such unpleasant characters, the adult cast go all out for laughs pushing themselves to the point of caricature. Rebecca Lock (with a stunning operatic vocal range) dissolves hilariously from a tightly wound disciplinarian into a purring sex kitten upon hearing Stevie Nicks. Alex Tomkins removes all dignity from the role of the man-child Dewey Finn playing in full clown mode complete with physical pratfalls. It is impossible to admire Dewey but Tomkins generates affection and a grudging respect as the character comes to admit his limitations.
Andrew Lloyd Webber introduces the show assuring the audience the young cast really do play their instruments live. He sounds proud and should be—the youngsters are marvels. Not only musically but also in catching the tone for their characters—mocking the excesses of heavy rock strutting around the stage making Satan’s horns with their fingers or pedantically correcting the educational errors made by Dewey Finn. The youngsters make School of Rock a joy.
School of Rock is a fun-for-all-the-family triumph and makes a great start for the New Year.
Reviewer: David Cunningham