Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2
Opened 26 September, 2011
My perspective on Rock Of Ages is not that of a predetermined enemy; I grew up with heavy metal music as much as punk and new wave. But this, despite its recorded pre-curtain announcement by David Coverdale of Whitesnake, is not a show about metal so much as silver-sprayed Styrofoam: namely, the poodle-rock or mullet-rock of the 1980s. Its jukebox score includes numbers by the likes of Foreigner, Poison, Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon; the big finale is, inescapably, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”. It is therefore unsurprising that the musical mix is, in its way, among the cleanest I have heard in the West End: the onstage band’s sound (although it gradually grows in volume) is so clipped and controlled that if they are not sometimes miming, they might as well be for all the atmosphere being generated.
That atmosphere is one that indulges all the worst aspects of the hard-rock culture this side of live onstage coke-snorting. The female ensemble are of course clad in microskirts and suspenders, and in case that doesn’t treat women demonstrably enough as pieces of meat, the female protagonist later gets a job in a strip club. The songs are either endless numbers about wanting to rock endlessly or posturing power ballads. In what is for me the funniest part of the night, health & safety regulations mean that for the stadium-rock ritual during the latter kind, LED mock-cigarette lighters have been given out for the audience to wave in the air rather than permit naked flames. It is an excellent emblem of the entire project: a culture which was itself a processed version of rock has now been further processed into a celebration of the crassest stereotypes, as if the act of celebration redeemed them rather than indicting us.
Oh, the plot: boy meets girl/loses girl/gets girl whilst the rock club they work at is threatened by a new urban development by – gasp! – a German! At the press preview I saw, several roles (including the obnoxious star normally portrayed by Shayne Ward) were performed by understudies, but it is not the kind of script that encourages examination of individual performances and characterisations, except for the insidious camp of narrator-figure Lonny as played by Simon Lipkin. It is an evening that took me back to the time when (this is true) I stuck my head into the bass speaker bin at a Black Sabbath concert, inasmuch as it made me regret still having my hearing for this rubbish.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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