We Will Rock You

Book by Ben Elton, music and lyrics by Queen
Queen Theatrical Productions, Phil McIntyre Live and Tribeca Theatrical Productions
Palace Theatre, Manchester

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We Will Rock You Credit: Johan Persson
We Will Rock You Credit: Johan Persson
We Will Rock You Credit: Johan Persson
We Will Rock You Credit: Johan Persson
We Will Rock You Credit: Johan Persson
We Will Rock You Credit: Johan Persson

Musical theatre makes for strange bedfellows. At an early stage of his career, Ben Elton adopted an agitprop persona with political views slightly to the left of Jeremy Corbyn while the pop group Queen were perceived as supporting the apartheid regime by playing a major segregated venue in South Africa. Pollical differences have not, however, prevented the collaboration resulting in We Will Rock You.

Although one of the first jukebox musicals, We Will Rock You is not typical of the genre. It is not factual or biographical and author Ben Elton takes a far from reverential approach—spoofing as often as celebrating the excesses of the hard rock brand of music. A guitarist under sentence of death avoids his fate for days by playing one last guitar solo.

Elton, who directs as well as writes, shows his stand-up roots by keeping the material fresh, squeezing in COVID-gags and substantially rewriting the plot upon which the songs are hung. The future dystopian society in which the musical is set is no longer due to the malign influence of reality-TV talent shows but rather (in the manner of Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day) a dependence upon online entertainment which has resulted in live music becoming extinct.

This suits Killer Queen (Jenny O’Leary), who rules the community, but a group of Bohemians who oppose her regime are inspired by the legend of a Dreamer who will one day bring back live music. Unfortunately, they have only a vague idea of what rock music sounds like. Galileo (Damien Walsh), whose mind is tormented by intrusive song lyrics he does not really understand, may be the legendary Dreamer and, with the assistance of the sceptical Scaramouche (Elena Skye), sets off on a quest to fulfil the prophecy, unaware agents of Killer Queen are in close pursuit.

As might be expected of a musical based on songs by Queen, everything about We Will Rock You is overdone. The running gag of Galileo talking solely in song titles and snatches of lyrics is hammered to death and a sincere toast to rock idols who have passed on goes on for ages. The moment where the squabbling lovers finally admit their attraction with "Who Wants to Live Forever" demands a restrained, intimate musical arrangement but is swamped in synthesised strings.

There is a heavy dependence upon video projections by STUFISH Entertainment Architects / Willie Williams to set the scene and create an atmosphere. In terms of creating a mood of sensory overload for the bombastic "One Vision", this is inspired, but the projections start to feel like compensating for a lack of physical props. The iconic gold statue of Freddie Mercury is created via a projection and, despite song lyrics emphasising how Killer Queen likes the finer things in life, her lair looks decidedly under-furnished.

Ben Elton seems conflicted about the gender politics of heavy rock lyrics. Despite his vocal prowess, Damien Walsh becomes a hamstrung hero who is constantly outwitted by his girlfriend’s criticism of his macho attitudes. Elena Skye has better luck bringing a gawky charm and acerbic wit to the insecure Scaramouche.

The anthemic nature of the songs limits the ability of the cast to sing original interpretations—they simply follow the original format. It is only with the less ambitious numbers like "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" they get a chance to shape the songs. Jenny O’Leary is not, however, overwhelmed by the songs giving Killer Queen a knowing ‘come up and see me’ Mae West style.

The production values of the current version of We Will Rock You are not as high as one might wish, but the vocals and musical performances will continue to delight Queen fans.

Reviewer: David Cunningham