Piccadilly Theatre, London W1
Opened 19 April, 2004

Rob Bettinson and Alan Janes are the writing team behind Buddy, arguably the best of the compilation rock musicals.  Hopes were therefore high when they turned their attention to Elvis Presley and his, well, least worst movie.  But perhaps Elvis is just too big for any one show. At any rate, Jailhouse Rock’s problem is that it tries ever harder to be everything to everyone, and just falls between several stools.

The first half, when our young hero Vince Everett gets sent to jail for manslaughter, is actually terrific.  There’s no band in the pit, and musical director David Mackay tries to avoid bringing instruments onto the stage.  Instead, the arrangements are largely a capella, with a doo-wop energy that recaptures the original excitement of rock ‘n’ roll. The company sing up several storms inside that first hour.

It’s after the interval that things start to slip out of control.  With Vince released and a band now onstage, things get blurred. Is this still a stage version of the movie, or an Elvis tribute musical, or just a concert by a young Elvis impersonator?  The show slides between formats without realising how sloppy it’s getting; it plays shamelessly to the partying fans, and theatre goes out of the window.

Notoriously, the show has no songs from the movie, not even the title number! The selection of other tunes is eclectic, but also lazy: “Burnin’ Love” is a good 15 years out of its time.  The musical arrangements get louder and crasser (and this from a reviewer who’s a child of glam and punk!), trading our rock birthright for a mess of wattage.  And by the end, it’s just Vince/”Elvis” belting out the Vegas power ballads.

Mario Kombou has the voice, quiff, sneer and hips, but like Elvis himself, he’s better at smouldering than acting.  There’s a solid supporting cast, with particularly honourable mentions to ex-Flying Pickets bass vocalist Gareth Williams and Gilz Terera, who one suspects is powered by Duracells.  Overall, though, better to do what no critic should ever do: watch the first half, and sneak away at the interval.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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