First performances are always a special occasion, especially when there's a Lord in attendance. Dawn Bush from our friends at the Musical Theatre Appreciation Society was at the very first preview of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical School of Rock and reports back. Can you guess how many standing ovations it got...?!
As I approached the New London Theatre via Shelton Street last night, I could see part of the word Rock standing bright red on its white background. Unmistakably theatrical, incongruous against the dark looming buildings of the alley, its brightness stood out. I focused on it and quickened my pace, my heart beating like the drums played so brilliantly by Freddy (Bailey Cassell).
When I got theatre tokens for my birthday earlier this month, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with them. I have never seen School of Rock the movie – I’ve only caught bits while making supper, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Indeed, sometimes I found myself thinking, rock music? Me? But my excitement has been building, which is a 2-edged sword – you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. Let me say this, guys. NOT IN THIS CASE! School of Rock is the only show I’ve seen where there were three spontaneous standing ovations, one at the interval and two in Act Two. It’s taken all my self-control not to shout in capital letters, YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS SHOW!! Beg, borrow or steal a ticket!! Well no, don’t steal. That would be wrong.
From the first moment with its Spinal Tap-type band No Vacancy, to the excitement of the unusual curtain call, I was captured. The opening number remains my favourite; the narcissistic “I’m too hot for you” sung with deadpan sincerity by Theo (Cameron Sharp) grabbed me straight away. You can hear the lyrics clearly, and make sure you listen, they are genius.
It being the first preview, the legendary Lloyd-Webber himself came onstage with the director Laurence Connor to introduce the show and to point out that the instruments were all being played by the children themselves; and there is no doubt in my mind that the kids steal the show. Get away from any idea of sweetness and schmaltz; this ain’t Annie! The talent and energy all over the stage was gobsmackingly impressive. At one point I thought the lead guitarist Zack was only just managing to hit the riff; the fluidity was lacking. It was only as the show progressed that I realised this was part of the act. It’s easy to pretend to play badly, but much more difficult to get that sense of not quite hitting it. Kudos to Toby Lee, who played him that night.
The lighting and set are suitably subdued – at least until the end, where during the Battle of the Bands we are hit with everything they’ve got. I couldn’t take a photo, the ushers were asking people to delete any they’d taken (take note – I know how we love to share our joy!) The smooth scene changes on the revolving stage lend themselves to an uninterrupted story. There are some crackingly good “in jokes” for MT fans, but don’t worry, I won’t give them away.
I was at the back of the stalls, dead centre, and as I’ve noted elsewhere, in the New London you’re never that far from the stage. I had an excellent view. I don’t think you’ll dip out if you can’t afford the best seats. Try if you can to get a programme, they’re a bit steep at a fiver, but the story of the show’s birth is interesting. It won’t tell you which kids you are seeing though.
I’ve struggled to find anything to criticise but there were 2 things I noticed. I found the mics a little distracting – perhaps hidden radio mics would have been less obtrusive than headsets – and I noted that the high energy of the performance wasn’t well-balanced by the more poignant moments; they didn’t have the power I think they could have. This was possibly due to the excitement of a first night, and they may well find their place as the run continues. Picky. Picky, picky, picky. Continue it will, I’ve no doubt, as long as there are groups of children talented enough to carry it. There are three child casts alternating, and they are already scouting for more on actor’s jobsites, I’ve seen the advert. This one, like Matilda, is going to be a talented kid conveyor belt. See it, you won’t be disappointed.