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Theatre Review (London): Rock of Ages at the Shaftesbury Theatre

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When a PR sent a classic email suggesting they loved my blog, and thought it was a perfect place for a review of the musical Rock of Ages, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve had similar emails before – they obviously teach them at “PR school”, and often have no relationship at all to your normal subject matter. But in this case I (and others) do review plays, just usually historic plays, modern avant-garde plays and children’s plays. Rock musicals aren’t usually in the mix – reflecting the fact perhaps that the team doesn’t exactly fit the normal demographic profile of “big musical” audiences.

But in a moment of frivolity I thought “why not”? Which was how I came to find myself sitting in the Shaftesbury Theatre, its dressing as Sunset Boulevard 1987 looking incongruous against the 1911 plaster swirls.

Had I looked it up first I probably wouldn’t have gone. The reviews were mostly terrible – the Guardian hated it, giving the dreaded one star, as did the Telegraph, as did the Evening Standard, only the Independent was cautiously positive.

It’s perhaps telling, however, though that the readers’ views in the Standard in terms of star ratings are more than double that of the reviewer’s. And I have to say, rather to my surprise, that this was simply a fun evening.

There’s nothing that could be called meaningful or significant, and the music is no one’s idea of brilliance, but in a pretty well packed theatre, amid some 1,000 audience members, I had a good time. And some of them clearly had a glorious time, leaving glowing with pleasure.

It’s not the story that does it. You really couldn’t get a simpler small town boy and girl meet in big city, fall in love, boy loses girl but you know she’ll return in the end storyline, with a siderun of nasty developer about to destroy city’s heritage and culture, but he’ll see the light in the end… (no, I don’t think I’m giving away too much – your seven-year-old could work it out).

Perhaps it’s in part the music. This glam rock (think Bon Jovi, Poison, REO Speedwagon and Twisted Sister) was around and getting plenty of play in the mid to late 80s, and despite being in no way a music buff I recognised a good percentage of the songs. Familiarity is usually good for comfort.

But mostly I think this is a show that’s got the tone just right for 2011. The character who holds it all together is Lonnie, the sound man, who several time pops out of the action to comment on the show and explain what’s happening the stage plans to the audience. You could call it post-modern irony, but really it’s just the show showing it doesn’t take itself seriously. It gives the audience permission to laugh along with, instead of at, the actors and singers. And the moment where he mocks the “hero” Drew (Oliver Tompsett) for having been in Mama Mia is a moment of comic genius.

Generally the cast all do a smoothly professional job. They’ve had a couple of months to get it just right, and at the moment it feels like a show on top of its form. Somewhat to my surprise television presenter Justin Lee Collins showed real stage presence, and X-Factor-winner Shayne Ward was perfectly adequate.

Some have complained about its politics – we are talking about pretty stereotyped stuff here, but I think the mistake being made is to take any of the show too seriously. It isn’t taking itself serious – and while there’s plenty of stockings and suspender belts for the female characters (and the odd flash of underpants for the men), as another (male) audience member said, it’s totally non-sexy, non-titivating. There’s energy and enthusiasm, but not sleaze.

This musical’s apparently now being made into a movie starring Tom Cruise, which I’d already call a “miss”, but if you need an evening of light entertainment, particularly if your musical memories date back this far, I’d say seeing Rock of Ages at the Shaftesbury is worth the glitter that will inevitable pop up around your house for several days afterwards.

Rock of Ages is at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Booking until February 11.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.