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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock London – review round-up

Dewey Finn (centre) and the young cast in School of Rock. Photo: Tristram Kenton Dewey Finn (centre) and the young cast in School of Rock at the New London Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Like AC/DC, Andrew Lloyd Webber is back in black, returning to the West End with a new musical all about the liberating power of rock.

School of Rock is based on the hugely popular 2003 Richard Linklater film of the same name, which starred Jack Black as an irrepressible hard-rock enthusiast forming a kick-ass band with a group of uber-talented schoolchildren. If you haven’t seen it, do. For various high-profile-celebrity-scandal reasons, they really don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Lloyd Webber’s stage adaptation, created in collaboration with Julian Fellowes (book), Glenn Slater (lyrics) and Laurence Connor (direction), received its world premiere on Broadway – the first Lloyd Webber musical since Jesus Christ Superstar to do so – last year to a generally positive New York press. It has now transferred to the New London Theatre, where it will stay until at least February.

But has Lloyd Webber managed to haul himself out of the flop-filled abyss of Love Never Dies and Stephen Ward? Does School of Rock have critics shaking their heads or their tail-feathers? Has anyone noticed the deafening irony of Lloyd Webber and Fellowes – two Tory peers who voted for cutting tax credits last October – championing a musical all about sticking it to the man?

And the ultimate question: couldn’t you just watch the film instead?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…

School of Rock – Get Your Rocks Off

Young cast members in School of Rock. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Young cast members in School of Rock. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The show sticks closely to the plot of the film, following excuse-for-an-adult Dewey Finn as he slyly impersonates his substitute teacher flatmate to pay the rent, discovers his class of prissy private-school kids is actually a bunch of little Mozarts, then sets about crafting them into a rock outfit capable of taking first prize in a battle of the bands, dodging strict teachers and pushy parents along the way.

So how does all that work on stage?

Pretty well, it seems. Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage★★★★) finds School Of Rock “well-nigh irresistible”, Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) enjoys its “overwhelming good nature”, and Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★) claims it is Lloyd Webber’s “freshest, funniest show since the youthful exuberance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats and Starlight Express”.

They’re not the only critics to have lost their po faces somewhere on Shaftesbury Avenue. For Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), the evening is a “big-hearted, family-friendly show”. For Quentin Letts (Mail, ★★★★★) it’s a “rooty-tooty, rock-pumpin’ effort”. And for Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★), it is “the most enjoyable few hours money can buy”.

There are some resolutely dissenting voices. Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★) cries that it’s all “a little ridiculous” and casts a scathing eye over a commercial West End musical making a transparent battle-cry for transgression. And in an overtly – and entertainingly – political review, Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) strains to draw a link between this family-friendly show and the recent election of Donald Trump. It is, he writes, “a show about an under-qualified, over-entitled white guy who shambles his way to public adoration by blithely inflicting bankrupt baby boomer values upon a bunch of impressionable people who don’t know any better”.

Most critics, though, fall into line behind Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), who lauds School of Rock as “a fable about the empowering force of music that crackles with mischief and sly irreverence”.

School of Rock – Sweet Child O’ Mine

Toby Lee in School Of Rock. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Toby Lee in School Of Rock. Photo: Tristram Kenton

David Fynn takes on the Jack Black role, while three casts of children aged 10-13 rotate as his band of classroom rockers. And the most impressive thing, by most accounts, is that they all play their instruments live.

There’s almost universal praise for Fynn. According to Taylor, he provides “a performance of explosive energy and scapegrace charm”. According to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★), he supplies “Tigger-level bounciness”. And according to Rod McPhee (Mirror, ★★★★), he is simply “superb”.

Billington delves a little deeper, placing Fynn’s “stumblebum” substitute in a long line of inspirational renegade teachers. “This is Alan Bennett’s Hector,” he writes, worryingly, “without the serial groping.” Phew.

And what about those kids? Depending on who you read, they are either “irresistibly talented” or “simply phenomenal”. They are either “uniformly excellent” or “as quirky as they are individual”. Pick any review – they all heap praise on the young cast, with Toby Lee, Amma Ris, Jude Harper-Robel, Logan Walmsley, Selma Hansen, and Oscar Francisco each getting name-checked at least once. Taylor suggests that these outrageously prodigious kids “deserve to be showered with gold stars”.

School of Rock – Sympathy for the Devil

Dewey Finn in School of Rock. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Dewey Finn in School of Rock. Photo: Tristram Kenton

From a group of ultra-gifted, infectiously cool kids to Andrew Lloyd Webber. His show pilfers three songs from the film, but is otherwise an album’s worth of original stuff.

Unsurprisingly, Shenton provides the most comprehensive context. “Lloyd Webber has regularly flirted with rock influences,” he explains, “most notably with Jesus Christ Superstar and some twangy rock chords at times infecting even the score of Phantom of the Opera, but here he gives himself the opportunity to fully indulge that anarchic spirit.”

It’s an indulgence that has found favour with most. “Lloyd Webber’s score is buoyant and bassy, with moments of guitar-shredding frenzy and a keen ear for pastiche,” says a gently humming Hitchings.

“Some of the songs are incredibly catchy,” agrees a toe-tapping Philip Fisher (British Theatre Guide).

“Lloyd Webber has here composed his happiest and most confident score in a long while,” gushes Taylor, who has left Hitchings and Fisher at the bar and is already head-banging his way across the mosh pit, pushing small children out of his way.

It’s only Shuttleworth who can’t bring himself to join in with the dancing. “I spotted one archetypal rock chord sequence in the entire show,” he gripes of Lloyd Webber’s score. “There was nearly a second, but even when quoting musically from Walk on the Wild Side he couldn’t resist gussying it up a bit.”

School of Rock – Is it any good?

Despite Shuttleworth’s moans, it seems it is. It’s been generally four-starred, with a few fives chucked in as well. Lloyd Webber has undoubtedly drawn a line under his recent flops and carved another crowd-pleasing hit that harks back to his earlier days chronicling Christ’s crucifixion.

Billington thinks it’s “Lloyd Webber’s most exuberant show in years”. Hitchings calls it “a feel-good experience with a hint of anarchic wildness”. And Shenton labels it a “genuine family musical”.

Lloyd Webber? Exuberant and anarchic? It seems 2016 really has turned the world on its head.

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