★★★½☆ Best rock gig in town or play-safe nostalgia-fest? Depends what you’re after.

Sydney Lyric
May 5, 2016

This is the future. We are living on an iPlanet where real music has died and downloads rule. The kids are brainwashed conformists, brought up on Ga Ga, a toxic mix of social media and manufactured pop. They must never, ever be exposed to the power of rock or they will rebel. This is life according to We Will Rock You, Ben Elton’s infamous 2002 musical, set to the songs of Queen. But why infamous?

Back then, the Rock Theatrical’s London debut received probably the worst reviews in a decade. Many felt the show to be as manufactured as the music of the future that the show purports to decry. The plot copped a pasting: Ben Elton “should be shot”, wailed the UK’s Daily Mirror. Everyone thought it would close the following week, but no, the public took it to its heart and opened their wallets in hordes, ensuring a healthy run of 12 years and a string of productions worldwide, not the least of which was the original 2003 Melbourne staging where Elton (half Australian, now living in Fremantle) had the chance to ‘fix’ some of its perceived weaknesses.

Despite living in London for half of its run, I confess I never saw the original production. To be honest, I considered that a bullet well dodged. So was reviewing this Sydney remount one I had to take for the team? Well yes and no – and that depends on who you are, what you want from a night out, and how much you think the music of Queen, belted out by a cracking cast, transcends the need for things like a decent plot and a crafted dramatic arc.

Here are the plusses. If you are between the ages of 30 and 70 and want to hear some of the finest songs from one of the greatest bands ever to grace the halls of Rock and Roll, this show is for you. Yes, the plot is silly, and yes the plot is slight, but Elton’s script is packed full of great one-liners and this hard-grafting Aussie cast is up there with the finest. Thanks to Dave Skelton’s fuck-off eight-piece band, they sell a string of memorable numbers for everything they can get. The excellent ensemble work their butts off to Arlene Phillips’ authentically 1980ish choreography – after all, she did lose her heart to a starship trooper. The sound is excellent, and the stadium lighting comes complete with hair-raising real flame effects.

Gareth Keegan reveals a winning hand as Galileo Figaro, with a rock tenor voice that is truly magnifico-o-o-o-o, and he’s consistently convincing as the American-accented nerdy outsider. His rebel partner-in-crime turns out to be an Essex girl. Erin Clare is a real find. She’s got a great set of lungs, but more importantly she’s an impressive and subtle actor, turning the feisty, gothic Scaramouche into a three-dimensional human being you can really root for. Casey Donovan makes a potent Killer Queen with a dynamic stage presence and some unmissable upholstery. In the 2-D role of the corporate bitch who sprang to life, we are told, by uploading herself from a computer game, she’s a bit 2-D, but she can belt the pants off a rock song. The voice isn’t so strong low down, however – Another One Bites The Dust started awkwardly down the octave for her. As her silver-haired henchman Kashoggi, Simon Russell milks every drop out of his dialogue, channelling just about every Bond villain you can think of, and his Seven Seas of Rhye is a welcome Act II pick-me-up.

As chief of the Bohemians, Brian Mannix of Uncanny X-Men fame is a warm and engaging presence. Defying first impressions that 80s excess might have taken its toll, he has a natural authenticity that is immensely likable. Sporting guns the size of an ‘80s mobile phone, Thern Reynolds as Brit (that’s short for Britney Spears) and Jaz Flowers as Oz (short for Ozzy Osborne) are a strong support act, the latter especially so with her powerful rock voice.

So what’s not to like? Here are the minuses. The script is overlong to sustain the limited idea that a pair of rebels must save the world from a brain-sapping diabolical corporation by rediscovering the long-lost secret of rock and roll. It’s been made over to include references to Facebook and Twitter, but is every technological advance quite so irredeemable? The script may have been updated for “now”, but my row at times resembled a sing-along in an old folks home. I’m not so sure this show’s philosophy will land so comfortably with Gen Y, let alone Gen Z (though according to Elton’s view of things they probably don’t get out much).

Thanks to a high-octane start, the company powers through Radio Ga Ga, complete with catchy video referencing everything from Metropolis to Microsoft. I Want To Break Free works well for the wannabe rebel kids, as does Killer Queen for her nibs and the evil empire. But by the middle of the first half, things begin to sag. Scenes are too long, water is treaded, and some songs ought to have been cut. The trawl through the final scene of Act I where our heroes finally meet the Bohemians seems to last for ever. When things pick up in the second half with the energy of the We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions sequence, you realise this is where the show needs to land rather more often.

The references to every rock lyric under the sun are fun, as are the mispronunciation of words and names from the dim, forgotten past – the Bohemians worship an obsolete “vi-day-oh tappy” i.e. a video tape, and most of them have accidentally chosen the names of pop icons of the wrong sex, like the hulking bloke who’s calling himself Madonna. But in all its references and allusions, Elton’s script and staging remains doggedly heterosexual – odd when you consider the show treats Freddie Mercury as virtually the Messiah. The pairing off of couples is invariably ‘straight’, and there’s some sniggering at a bloke sitting behind another bloke on a bike (sigh). For all its trumpeting of rebellion, there’s often a whiff of ‘playing safe’ in the air.

If the above actually sounds like two reviews, one for the musical theatre snobs, one for the common man, perhaps it is. At the end of the day, I found the narrow philosophy of technology bad, rock good frustratingly shallow. Scratch the anarchic surface and the show merely celebrates nostalgia. But if that doesn’t really bother you – and (despite the glaring omission of Don’t Stop Me Now) for much of the show I really was having such a good time – then get on the evil Internet and book now.

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter