Review: School of Rock (New London Theatre, London)

Remember that movie with Jack Black where he masqueraded as a teacher who manages to slip through the child protection net and enlists a bunch of kids to become rock stars? Well they’ve only gone and made a musical version of it!

There wasn’t much to hate about the 2003 movie version, and apparently Andrew Lloyd Webber thought so too because he’s the brains behind this adaptation. Taking on both producer and composer credits, it seems an unlikely subject matter for the Lord, but after launching it on Broadway to great success, it was only a matter of time before he dragged it over to London and set himself on The One Show sofa to promote the heck out of it.

For those who have seen the film, this will all seem very similar. For those who haven’t, it’s pretty simple: manchild obsessed with rock starts work at a school pretending to be a qualified teacher, before enlisting a group of kids to be in his band and then kidnapping them to go to a contest. (Basically, think Sister Act 2, but with far fewer nuns and far more instruments.) And this musical adaptation, here scripted by Downton alumni Julian Fellowes, is ridiculously loyal to that movie version. Well, if it ain’t broke, why change it…?!

Joining Lloyd Webber on music duty is lyricist Glenn Slater, and between them they have crafted a well put together musical that uses the title song from the film (School of Rock) to great effect, while throwing in a few more that feel very in keeping with the overall tone of the piece (You’re in the Band and Stick it to the Man are both stand-outs). But despite the strength of these additions, it’s hard to get away from the fact that, firstly, there’s little variation between many of the songs and, secondly, there feels like a large number of reprises so it’s a tad repetitive in the closing moments of the show.

At the helm of the whole thing is Laurence (loves a remake) Connor, and while this is based on the Broadway version, it’s not identical from a staging point of view. Presumably heavily guided by being located in the New London Theatre, there are plenty of moments in this where the action looks completely lost. Scenic designer Anna Louizos has done a perfectly admirable job of converting the more elaborate Broadway sets to this new venue, but with a proscenium that looks far too large, what scenery there is just looks a bit, well, basic… It has ‘tour-ready’ written all over it.

Where the direction really struggles, though, is in just about every scene that doesn’t involve the child cast. Partly the result of Fellowes book, any scenes that revolve around the adult cast lull, and I found myself willing the next classroom sing-a-long, both for the energy they brought and the fact that they were the only times that the comedic side of the piece worked.

If there’s an area of School of Rock where it’s difficult to find fault it’s the cast. On the performance we saw, Gary Trainor was playing Jack Black’s character, Dewey. Trainor was absolutely faultless, and there’s little wonder that the role is shared between him and the usual lead when so much energy and vocal power is needed. Opposite him as the almost-love interest is Florence Andrews as Rosalie Mullins – it’s largely a thankless role, but Andrews does well to add heart to what could easily be a pantomime character.

It’s the child cast that deserve the most applause, though, and while I’ll admit that I was disappointed with their vocals at times, their acting was second to none (sometimes exceeding their adult counterparts). It’s their abilities with the instruments on stage that really shines through, and if it weren’t for the adult band stepping away from their instruments as proof, you’d be forgiven for not believing Lloyd Webber’s claims at the start of the show that the children are playing live.

Verdict: ★★★☆

There’s a lot to love here, with some stand out songs, a talented cast and some great comedy. But the book has some real highs and lows, and there’s no getting away from the fact that the soundtrack is just too darn repetitive.

And the view…

Circle, row E, seat 14. This was an absolute steal as it was booked when the show first went on sale for the grand total of £25. For that price it was comfortable and aside from having a great view of the girls in the stalls who decided to spend plenty of time on Snapchat, it also had a great view of the stage. The seat has since gone up to £75 (Brexit?!) and for that price, you’ll definitely want to be much closer.

New London, Circle, Row E, Seat 14
New London, Circle, Row E, Seat 14

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kerrie says:

    I finally managed to see the show this past Sunday after my first visit was cancelled due to the lift not working – thereby rendering the venue inaccessible to me in my wheelchair. We had Gary on as Dewey then, too! I was thrilled as loved his portrayal of Donnie Kirshner in Beautiful and had wanted to see him as Dewey since casting was announced… I’m glad you enjoyed his portrayal as much as I did 🙂

    Funny you should say that about the soundtrack being a little too repetitive.. I got the Broadway Cast Recording because I was convinced we’d never get the show here, and when we did, there was a TON of confusion whether I could actually get into the venue due to the size of the lift. Aside from ‘Stick It To the Man’, one of the other songs I was most looking forward to hearing was ‘Give Up Your Dreams’, which Patti sings. You can imagine my frustration when I realised it was replaced with a ‘ Top of Mount Rock’ reprise for her!

    1. Ade John Leader says:

      Definitely enjoyed Gary’s performance. I was quite pleased when I found out he was on before the show! And completely agree on the music. I didn’t really mention Patti but I have to admit I wasn’t overly keen on her because she seemed completely surplus a lot of the time. If anything I can imagine that keeping in Give Up Your Dreams would help give her more purpose. Shame!

      1. Kerrie says:

        I agree, it definitely would have helped make her character a bit more rounded… it’s essentially her having a go at Dewey in song, a lot more forcefully than she does in our version; plus at times the lyrics really make me laugh and it just seems like a heck of a lot of fun to sing!

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