Rock of Ages power slides into the West End fresh from Broadway, where it proved something of a surprise hit. This jukebox musical takes a series of soft rock anthems from the 80s (mostly) and fuses them with a tongue-in-cheek story about a bar in Los Angeles that faces closure because of greedy property developers.
Amy Pemberton (Sherrie) and Oliver Tompsett (Drew) in Rock of Ages at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London (previous picture shows Amy Pemberton and Shayne Ward (Stacee Jaxx)) Photo: Tristram Kenton
A love story between two of the bar’s young waiting staff is thrown into the mix and musical numbers are interspersed with plenty of thrusting, high octane dancing from one of the West End’s more arresting ensembles. Meanwhile, ushers serve beer in the auditorium during the show and audience members are encouraged to wave lighters in the air to accompany the slow numbers.
This is a show that boasts big hair, big chords and skimpy outfits. It’s pitched somewhere between Wayne’s World and a grungy Las Vegas strip joint: Guitar Hero - The Musical would have been an equally appropriate title.
If you’re looking for nuance, you’re going to be disappointed. Rock of Ages is crass, puerile, uncomplicated stuff and the plot is gossamer thin. It’s also one of the most unashamedly fun nights out you can have in the West End at the moment - I regularly found myself with a big, silly grin plastered across my face.
It’s a show that delivers exactly what it promises with some aplomb. The music covers most of the choice cuts from the era (We Built This City, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Here I Go Again) while the staging, costumes and hairpieces recreate the flavour of the decade that style forgot with no small amount of flair. And, crucially, it doesn’t take itself too seriously thanks to Chris D’Arienzo’s knowing book.
And what of the casting? Well, the first thing to say is that the two pieces of stunt casting - TV presenter Justin Lee Collins and X Factor alumnus Shayne Ward - are by no means the lead roles, despite their billing on posters. The real stars are all established musical theatre performers. Oliver Tompsett and Amy Pemberton both impress as the central love interests and notable support is also given by Sandy Moffat as Franz, the evil property developer’s son.
But Simon Lipkin is the real highlight. Having previously impressed as Trekkie Monster in the original cast of Avenue Q, he brings a real goofy charm to the role of Lonny, the show’s narrator.
Collins, in his first full stage role, does serviceably well - he can hold a tune, but occasionally looks a little awkward on stage, especially during the dance numbers. Meanwhile, Ward doesn’t embarrass himself either, but isn’t likely to win any acting awards in the near future. That said, he’s vocally impressive and seems happy to send himself up in the role of a failed rock star. One would imagine that if the show runs, these two parts could continue to be filled with household names who can shift tickets.
This is not a production that is going to appeal to everyone and musical theatre aficionados might want to give it a wide berth, but if it can find a way of targeting ticket buyers from beyond the traditional West End market - a younger, male-heavy audience - then this could enjoy a decent run at the Shaftesbury. How long it lasts will have much to do with whether the audience to which this material is likely to appeal can be convinced to come to the theatre - and shell out up to £65 on a ticket.