first night

Rock of Ages

Tom Harper goes to Caedmon Hall to review HBT's production of this rock'n'roll jukebox musical.

Upon entering Hild Bede’s Caedmon Hall, myself and other members of an anticipating audience were delighted to be greeted with bright lights, a live band onstage and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ blasting out loud and proud. The initial atmosphere of HBT’s Rock of Ages promised a show that was vibrant, visually stunning, high-energy and an exhilarating trip into the world of Rock and Roll, and in these respects the performance mostly delivered. However, it is difficult to get past the fact that the show was fraught with tech issues, clunky staging executions and clumsy musical set pieces, which ultimately detracted from the initial flavour that the audience were given before the performance had begun.

Starting with the set, tech and staging, these were mostly excellent, and were far more than I was expecting in terms of the air of professionalism that they brought to the show. Rock of Ages sells itself on churning out classic belters and looking visually stunning, and suffice to say that these areas were where the performance really shone. The set was incredible, and the artistic choices of set builder Kieran Laurie, director Elliot Mather and artistic director Emily Robinson must be praised: the use of vinyl records on the walls, colourful signs and a bar fully immersed viewers in the ‘Bourbon Room’, where the majority of the musical was set. Furthermore, the lighting was exceptional, effectively capturing the spirit of a Rock and Roll show and remaining consistently varied and interesting, which kept every musical number unique and fun. The use of a live band was also interesting and perfectly complemented the aesthetic of the bar, although at times the band could play out of time with the singers and one another, which upset the pacing of the show. Indeed, sound was ultimately the biggest disappointment throughout the entire performance, as constant issues with microphones spoiled the majority of the musical’s more ambitious scenes. Many mics failed to work, which resulted in key plot points and even songs to be entirely lost beneath the loud music of the band. At times, mic packs were on open display, which prevented me as an audience member to fully immerse myself in what I was watching. Perhaps most importantly, many performers seemed to forget that they were wearing mics when they went offstage, and on more than one occasion I was annoyed to hear loud conversations from backstage about how the previous scene went and what was coming next. For a show that should be a delight to the ears, it was a shame that the volume of much of the dialogue and songs kept the audience guessing more than it should have.

Additionally, I question the creative decision to use blackouts during the show, as these frequently stopped it dead in its tracks. Whilst the prominence of silences stands as a testament to the high energy and vibrancy of other parts of the performance, scene transitions were still extremely awkward and far too long. This was exacerbated by the fact that the interval left the audience waiting for around half an hour, which dampened the atmosphere of the second act. Whilst discussing the interval, I cannot help but feel that the audience saw more than they should have, which could undermine the professionalism of the performance. Throughout the interlude the audience were openly shown the band fiddling with their instruments and tech issues, with members of the production team often walking on and off of the stage whilst all of the lights were still directed at them. Using a curtain to shelter preparations for the second act would have instantly solved this, but instead I found myself watching aspects of the show which totally shattered the illusion that it had created during the first act. Unfortunately, several other aspects of the show contributed to this issue of preventing the audience from feeling truly lost in the performance. Whilst the use of the band onstage as part of the bar was nice, they often looked bored in between musical set-pieces, seemingly forgetting that the audience were always watching them. Also, their frequent fiddling with cords and sheet music was distracting, and they would do well in future performances to maintain a sense of character so that they do not look out of place onstage. Whilst I understand that they are focusing on playing the musical’s numbers, which were generally brilliant, the occasional smile or emphasis on showmanship would not have gone amiss. Moreover, I could sometimes see actors offstage, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that the set’s doors were often allowed to swing open, giving the audience a full view of backstage areas. Again, these are easy problems to fix, but their consistent presence throughout the show upset the story that it was trying to tell.

Moving onto the cast themselves, the leads were extremely entertaining, and easily made up for many of the issues elsewhere in the show. From the get-go, Tyler Rainford brought a fantastic energy to the character-stroke-narrator Lonny, which kept audience members captivated throughout the show. Whilst his accent could sometimes vary and certain moments were overplayed, the principal vibrancy of the performance definitely came from Rainford’s showmanship, which complemented the Rock and Roll atmosphere of the musical very well. Nevertheless, the stand-out performer of the evening has to be Amy Barrett as Sherrie Christian. With Rock of Ages being her debut performance in Durham, I am delighted to say that her singing and acting abilities never failed to please, and I look forward to seeing what she gets up to with DST in the future. Complementing Barrett was another Durham musical newcomer, Richie Johnsen, whose vocals were very strong, hitting high and low notes confidently and consistently. Sadly, I was slightly underwhelmed by his characterisation in comparison, which could undermine the chemistry that he and Barrett shared onstage. Nevertheless, the performances of many of the cast members did not disappoint, with several actors and actresses shining with hilarious roles. The German accents of Alex Marshall and Matt Lloyd frequently elicited riotous laughter, and Jake Hathaway’s portrayal of Stacee Jaxx always had me chuckling in my seat. Although Hathaway often failed to keep in time with the music of his songs, he nevertheless kept the audience entertained. Furthermore, Finola Southgate also stood out for me in her role as Regina, given that the combination of her exceptional singing and passionate acting brought something that other performers could sometimes lack.

Indeed, it is worth highlighting that another one of my main issues with the show was the fact that many performers often chose to either act or sing/dance, but not both. Whilst everyone in the ensemble brought a fantastic energy to every single musical number, such energy was often focused on one element or the other, which spoiled the play’s vibrancy. On the one hand, chorus members looked confused during some of the shows more complex dance routines, with some mouthing the words to the song whilst others remained expressionless, looking as if they were concentrating on remembering the next few moves. This was a particular issue during the opening of the second act. Nevertheless, it must be said that the choreography was generally very good, although I would have liked more use to have been made of the space that was available to the performers. Also, painfully little attention was paid to the use of some of the musical props, with some being evidently used upside-down, which rather than being funny came across as careless. Conversely, for many actors who brought excellent characterisation to their roles, their singing sometimes descended into the standard found in karaoke sessions as opposed to that expected in musical theatre. Whilst this was admittedly rare, it was distracting.

Regardless, I was blown away by the professionalism of the cast as a team; namely their ability to keep the show going if things were in danger of going wrong. Rainford’s hilarious ability to make a mistake into a moment of comedy ensured that the pacing of the show did not suffer. Indeed, the performance was filled to the brim with instances of comedic brilliance, from Elliot Mather’s side-splittingly funny introduction to the show to Rainford’s frequent interactions with the audience. Also, in spite of some of the mistakes that are somewhat expected of a musical’s opening night, the show was genuinely entertaining from start to finish. The promise of a loud and sexy performance was definitely delivered, and this was brought out particularly in the final number, which was nothing less than brilliant. Whilst I would imagine that Rock of Ages will need another performance before it fully realises its full potential, Mather should still be commended for a great first show. Although the mistakes that were made are easily fixable, the better aspects of the musical stood out as truly memorable. As a result, I would urge anyone reading this to go and see Rock of Ages, which will prove to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening of Rock and Roll.

23 February 2017

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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