When Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that he was working on a musical version of the 2003 film ‘The School of Rock’, I was surprised. I wouldn’t normally associate the lord of musical theatre with rock music, but as it turns out, this has been his biggest hit in years. Lloyd Webber has always talked about the importance of children knowing how to play musical instruments and the impact that music in a whole can have on children’s lives. This musical show cases the idea that music can change lives and give children the confidence that they did not have before, and the idea is brought home by the children all playing their own instruments live on stage.
And, truth be told, it is the children that are the stars of the show.
After a lengthy and what must have been a difficult auditions process, many incredibly talented children were cast and their performances are worth the ticket price alone. For this show, to be a triple threat isn’t enough. These children must sing, dance, act and play instruments, and to be completely honest, I felt that the children could accomplish this better than some of the adults. Also, these children must be able to rock out and pull at the heart strings at the same time. The song ‘if only you would listen’ highlights this, show casing the children’s struggles to be understood by their parents. The music introduced to them by Dewey Finn (Or Mr Schneebly) as they know him gives them the confidence to show their parents who they truly are.
Highlights with in this brilliant child cast for me were Lois Jenkins as pig tailed bass player Katie. Bless her, the bass was nearly the same size as her but she could pull it off well with a cheeky smile and lots of attitude. Toby Lee as guitarist Zack was also very impressive, it’s no wonder why he graced the palladium stage with his guitar playing skills in a recent series of ‘Tonight at the London Palladium’. Amma Ris got one of the loudest cheers of the night for her beautiful rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ in her role of shy new girl Tomika. Special mentions must also go to Jobe Hart as Billy, the lad who loves all things glamourous when his father wishes him to watch football, and Isabelle Methven as Summer, the super organised leader of the class who knows how to put Dewey in his place.
In the adult cast, there are stand out performances. Of course, I must talk about the leading man. In this case, I saw the alternate and believe me that is not a bad thing. Alternates and understudies can be as good as the main cast and need to receive the same levels of appreciation. Gary Trainer plays the role of Dewey Finn here, the over the top rock wannabee who finds himself teaching at an expensive posh school to pay rent. And he does play the role extremely well. A lot of energy is required and he to shows off his instrument playing skills. But, there is a problem with this role and this would come to anyone who plays the part. I have also seen the Broadway Dewey receive the same comments. The role of Dewey is famous because he was created and played by Jack Black, and his portrayal has become suitably iconic. There lies the problem. I believe anyone who plays this role is playing Jack Black playing Dewey Finn and I don’t believe there would be any avoiding it really. It’s a shame because I would love to see him bring something a little bit new to the part. Nevertheless, he is a brilliant character played incredibly well.
Oliver Jackson plays Ned Schneebly and has some brilliant comedic moments, in particular his guitar hero rock off when he believes he is alone to his hilarious rock music fan in the battle of the bands finale. And whilst I know that the role of his partner Patty Di Marco is supposed to be annoying and over the top, I must say that I found Preeya Kalidas portrayal a little bit too much. Perhaps it was the annoying accent? Other members of the cast often doubled up on roles, playing teachers as well as the parents of the children.
In terms of the staging, I believed that it worked well with the cast members moving set pieces on and off the stage themselves as not to distract from the action. One bit of staging that did disappoint me was the staging of the battle of the bands finale. Whilst the main action was taking place on the stage, the members of the cast playing the children’s parents were placed in the audience. Whilst this may seem a good way of involving the audience in the high-energy rock finale, I found myself torn between watching the children performing their socks off on stage or turning to watch the reactions of the parents. I wanted to see both and from where I was sitting on the far-right side of the stage, I couldn’t do that.
Another thing that I must talk about is sadly the behaviour of the audience. It is coincidental that I saw this show in the same week that food and drink in the theatre had become a talking point on the news and social media. During the fifteen minute interval, I happened to see a couple drink a whole bottle of wine hurriedly between them after they were rightly told that they would not be allowed to take the bottle into the auditorium. Also, towards the end of the interval, the group of people a few seats along from decided that it was a good time to dig in to spring rolls and popcorn chicken they had brought into the theatre from elsewhere. Not only was it noisy, but it also absolutely stunk and the poor members of the cast had to walk right past them to get on to the stage, probably receiving a nose full of that unpleasant stench.
In conclusion, I loved this show and would happily go to see it again. Okay, some of the songs aren’t that memorable and the lead role is an imitation of an actor playing that role but the children are incredible and well worth the visit alone. You will be left wanting to rock out and join in because it is a lot of fun and filled with some brilliant talent. No wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber has a hit on his hands and I’m sure that it will see a lot more success in the West End, just as it has on Broadway.