I was never going to be the sort of person seduced by the plethora of posters appearing all over London advertising this latest show. Justin Lee Collins! Shayne Ward! A number of songs by rock artists I never listen to if I can help it! It’s effectively pitching the entire show as a jukebox collection performed by a stunt cast – an eighties Dreamcoats and Petticoats with leather jackets and eyeliner.
And yet, when seeing it last week as it started previews, it’s clear that there’s much more going on, and there’s far more for a lover of traditional musicals to enjoy. Don’t believe the hype – Rock of Ages is actually quite good.
Both Collins and Ward have achieved some degree of fame in other fields – Collins as a radio and TV presenter, Ward as a winner of ITV’s The X Factor. While it’s sometimes notable that it’s difficult for TV presenters to move into other fields, or vice versa (I doubt Ortis Deeley will be trying his hand at live sports presentation again any time soon, and the less said about BBC talent show winner Jodie Prenger’s attempts at presenting from the Olivier Awards red carpet, the better) here both acquit themselves admirably. No, more than that, they are both pretty good, Ward’s comic timing in particular. It’s just that their roles are far smaller than the headline spots on the posters would suggest.
The true starring roles go to Oliver Tompsett, Simon Lipkin, Amy Pemberton and Jodie Jacobs. Regular musical theatregoers are sure to recognise at least one of those names, just as they’d recognise the basic plot structure – beloved meeting place is threatened by developers, forcing otherwise polar opposites to unite to save it. It could almost be a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney vehicle, if Hollywood movie musicals were set on LA’s Sunset Strip and had long sequences set in stripper bars.
The central romance, between Tompsett and Pemberton’s characters, is totally endearing despite the sleazier elements. You know how it goes: it’s a boy meets girl, boy shyly makes mistake of saying they’ll be friends, girl shags rock star in scuzzy toilet, girl runs away from boy and becomes a lap dancer kind of story. Both actors deliver the goods, and it’s really only the inevitability of their storyline that disappoints.
Lipkin, meanwhile, is very much the comic relief. His Lonny is the archetypal sidekick/narrator – a role which is acknowledged on stage in one of several knowing tips of the hat to the musical theatre genre. Purists may rankle at the prevalence of the “oh, we’re in a musical” jokes, but generally Lipkin is able to carry them off.
For me, though, the standout performance is by Jodie Jacobs. A rising star who I’ve now seen in several different roles – I Love You Because at the Landor, Jest End, a toe-curling Bright Lights, Big City (where, like many of her fellow castmates, she completely outshone the material) – Jacobs ought, by rights, to be a household name. This supporting role, as militant campaigner Regina, won’t be the breakout one she deserves, but it’ll be one of several that audiences remember when they leave.
As jukebox musicals are wont to do, Rock of Ages crams in far more songs than it should, reducing some to just a couple of lines while never really developing the sort of consistency that an authored musical can. But if you were to place all the jukebox shows in a line in order of merit, it would be near the front.