REVIEW: Rock of Ages (Wycombe Swan) ★★

The tale of two halves….

It was only my commitment to this review that stopped me from walking out of this performance at the interval. As the lights went up at the end of the first act, a teenage boy behind me, part of a school party, sniggered “I didn’t know I was coming to a porno”. My question was, who the hell produced, directed and designed this? Beavis and Butthead? A look at the creatives list in the programme shows just one woman out of a team of 11 and wow does it show.

Rock of Ages first appeared on Hollywood Boulevard in 2005 before moving to Broadway in 2009. The musical opened in the West End in 2011 and was made into a film starring Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and a peculiarly brummie accented Russell Brand in 2012.

The musical is the story of Sherrie and Drew, small town dreamers who have moved from Kansas and Detroit to Hollywood to pursue their goals. Drew wants to follow his soft rock idols and become a star under the guise of Wolfgang Von Colt, while Sherrie wants to become a movie actress. Both of them dream of being with each other but can’t quite get it together. For now they work shifts at The Bourbon Room, the sleazy star attraction of Sunset Strip, a spit and sawdust rock venue owned by Dennis and run by Lonny.

A German business man has designs on gentrifying the whole of Sunset Strip and seeks to force Dennis out of the Bourbon Room, aided by a corrupt mayor but dogged at every step by career protestor Regina. In an effort to raise money, Dennis persuades / blackmails fading rock god Stacee Jaxx and his band Arsenal to play their final gig at The Bourbon Room, a move which has a major impact on Sherrie and Drew’s dreams.

Lucas Rush as Lonny, our narrator, is superb, but the tone of the show is set early. Lonny is telling us how sexy Sunset Strip is and in an effort to hammer this point home, a woman rides past slowly on a bicycle wearing barely-there shorts and a pout. For the whole of the first act, all the women on stage, apart from occasionally Sherrie, are treated as objects. When we first meet Stacee Jaxx, on the phone up on the gantry, there is a woman on her knees simulating a blow job. As Regina is introduced in the mayor’s office she is keen to state that her name is not “Regeena” but” Reg-eye-na” as in rhymes with, well you get it, yawn. While Jaxx performs at the Bourbon Room, two women take turns to simulate giving him a blow job. It is not sexy, it is not even speaking to Jaxx sleaziness, it is just gross and unnecessary.

Dennis and Lonny “joke” about the character “waitress number 1”. The alleged humour appears to come from them implying that this woman is so insignificant that she doesn’t deserve a name. It is patronising, demeaning and distasteful. Sinead Kenny who plays this part (extremely well) is on the stage for the vast majority of the show, to dehumanise her as “waitress number one” is disgraceful. One may ask whether this dialogue is this from the original script. Maybe it is, but the directors clearly have no problem moving from that when they choose to. Some of Lonny’s best parts are when he is riffing with the audience and he even references the 2012 film, so to leave this appalling sexist crap in the show is inexcusable.

Stacee Jaxx is a sleaze ball but the show makes the women sleazy while presenting Jaxx as a slightly lost, drunk cowboy. Dressed from head to foot in white the character maintains a pristine appearance throughout, he even manages to emerge from a tryst in the men’s toilets of a dive bar with not a mark on him. Really? I was surprised by the casting of Cruise in this part for the film but he nailed the role of the addled, been there, seen it, had it, done it rock god, still searching for the next high and going to every extreme to try to find it. Sam Ferriday’s portrayal is the antithesis of that. His Jaxx is a bumbling, charisma-less wimp who I struggle to believe any woman would look at twice. Ferriday has a great voice, but dressed and directed like this, he has got no chance of giving a convincing portrayal.

It would have been interesting to see what Lucas Rush could do with the Jaxx role, I suspect he has the right balance of impish charm, swagger and sex appeal to deliver it, although dressed and directed in the same way as Ferriday perhaps even he could do little better.

The portrayal of Hertz the German business man hell bent on gentrification by Vas Constanti as a goose stepping, “accidently” Sieg Heiling German caricature just added to the hideousness of the first act.

So it was with some trepidation that I waited for the curtain to go up on the 2nd act. Fortunately after a hint at the end of the first act, we were fully introduced to Zoe Birkett as Justice, channelling her inner Beyonce. She was an absolute breath of fresh air. Dressed in an ankle length, glittering dress and high boots she is by far the sexiest character on the stage and absolutely lights the place up.

The action and the actors seem to really hit their stride in the second act, less time is spent on objectification and more on the plot, including some genuinely laugh out loud moments. Dennis and Lonny’s duet of “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” is wonderful, while Andrew Carthy threatens to steal the entire show with his “quick changing” Franz!

Throughout the show the songs are brilliantly delivered. The onstage rock band, sometimes integrated into the action, sometimes just providing the score, are superb. All of the cast have great voices, apart from (and I think that is the point) Kevin Kennedy who is a comic revelation as Dennis.

The 2nd act whips thorough some classic soft rock songs, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, “Keep On Loving You” and arrives at the crescendo performance – the absolute classic belter “Don’t Stop Believing”. It is a cold autumnal Tuesday in Wycombe but the entire audience is on its feet singing and dancing. As the curtain goes down everyone is smiling, including me, but my distaste with much of the show quickly returns.

This is a great cast, armed with some of the best 80s soft rock tunes but they are badly let down by the production team.

Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: The Other Richard

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