In his autobiography, the comedian Stewart Lee wrote the following: “Why don’t people like Ben Elton? Admittedly, I was writing this material in the light of seeing Elton’s Queen musical We Will Rock You. I was obliged to see it professionally, as the director of another musical, Jerry Springer: The Opera, but I found it profoundly depressing, even as an example of the largely futile genre of musical theatre. It made me despair of humanity, but having seen it, Ben Elton’s Queen musical is one of those things you can’t unsee, like animal pornography or some especially horrible vomit in a gutter, and it haunts you for days, every time you close your eyes. There’s bad art, and then there’s corrupt art, dishonest art, art that lies and is made with nothing but contempt for its audience: We Will Rock You is all of those.”
Now, I may not be as cynical as Mr Lee – who is? – but that, really, pretty much gives one the right kind of idea about how to approach We Will Rock You. A clichéd, horribly tenuous mish-mash of basically every hackneyed plot device or reference necessary to move the show along, it would have been better for all concerned if they’d just dropped the wafer-thin ‘storyline’ entirely and just played Queen hits back to back.
For one, although the show is only eight years old, it has dated horribly, with a ridiculous premise that makes Logan’s Run look cutting edge. Set 300 years into the future, for no reason that is ever made clear music has been banned and there’s no musical instruments on the entire planet, which is now no longer known as Earth but Planet Mall, overseen by the evil Killer Queen of Globalsoft Corporation, and there’s a boy who doesn’t fit in and a girl who isn’t like the others and… oh, I can’t be bothered.
Bandying about ‘futuristic’ words like cyberspace and email does not an alternative universe make, and squeezing them into Queen songs to ram the point home is laboured in the extreme – and painful. “All we hear is Radio Gaga/ Video goo-goo/ Internet gaga”? Give me strength, although on the whole, all this appeared to go unnoticed.
The dialogue has surely got to be truly the worst ever committed to stage, to the point one actually felt sorry for the poor actors having to speak it out loud. “It’s like they wanna click the white arrow over us and drag us into the recycle basket,” one character lamented at some point. That’s 2011 Ben Elton, that is.
Never in my life would I ever have anticipated a show eventually being sold by a missing-in-action ex-Brookside star, but the introduction of Leon Lopez as the leader of the Bohemians, the bunch of misfits who want to find rock ‘n’ roll again, actually brought things up a notch, and not just because of his remarkable biceps. He bought a nice touch of individuality to the production and his numbers I Want it All and Headlong were real highlights.
In fact although the show itself is almost insufferable, the cast is, inversely, excellent. There are some incredible voices and their expertise and professionalism really shone through. There is not a note or a foot wrong throughout. Ian Reddington (better known as Vernon off Corrie) made his inexplicable hippy character fun and strangely convincing; I’d Do Anything finalist Ashley J Russell camped up a storm as the diva Killer Queen; West End ledge Earl Carpenter (last seen on stage as Juan Peron in Evita) did stirling work as the ludicrous Matrix-esque lackey Khashoggi.
Ex-Hearsay member Noel Sullivan gave a surprisingly good performance as the lead, Galileo (although several knocks in the script at manufactured music and Simon Cowell’s influence on the industry paid no mind to the fact that’s how Sullivan got his break. Ironic). But the star of the show, despite wielding an extreme form of Cockney accent that made me want to get out of my seat to strangle her, Amanda Coutts as Scaramouche was sensational.
At the end of the day, as they say, me ‘n’ Stew aren’t going to stop the Empire packing them in for this one. And in the end, yes, as Gloria Estevez once sang , the rhythm is going to get you, and when the show builds up for the STOMP-STOMP CLAP! STOMP-STOMP CLAP! of the immortal title track, of course you’re going to be tapping your feet. The experience won’t “haunt me for days”, as there’s far too much of this kind of thing out there for We Will Rock You to be an especially deserving culprit; the brilliant cast stop this from being “corrupt art”, because you certainly get the money’s worth out of their whole-hearted performances – there has been much worse. But there is certainly no redemption for Ben Elton in this shockingly cynical moneyspinner, although the standing ovation it received tonight, and probably every other night, would say otherwise.
We Will Rock You is on at the Empire until September 24.