We Will Rock You…with a paper thin plot…

Posted on January 25, 2010

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When it was decided that the Queen musical extravaganza We Will Rock You was set to rock and roll into Dublin’s O2 Theatre this January you can be sure that there were plenty of happy Queen fans rolling around the floor thinking of who was the best person to leave that Christmas present hint for.

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After a staggered opening night, two mid show stoppages due to technical difficulties, the show has played to largely delighted audiences since then. And it’s ironic really that the stoppages on opening night were down to technical difficulties because it is the technical aspects of the show that are perhaps among the most impressive aspects of it.

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The O2 is basked in the atmosphere of a rock gig as the audience gears up for the 7:30pm curtain up. This is not necessarily a good thing, but I’ll get to that later.

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The premise of the show is very simple, too simple in fact. Set in the future, the world of Gaga guys and gals is presided over by Killer Queen, ensuring that her subjects all listen to the same thing, act and dress the same way. It’s the homogenisation of music extending to people. Musical instruments are banned and anything other than the Killer Queens okayed musical pieces will result in the performer being banished to the Seven Seas of Rhye.

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Amidst this world of uniformed chaos, we meet Galileo Figaro (Gazza), a young man who hears music in his head but doesn’t know what it means. After singing his opening number of I Want To Break Free, he gets arrested (We’ve all been there…). While incarcerated, he meets another girl whom he christens Scaramouche, or as she puts it, “Scary Bush”. Together they escape and go on the run, ending up at the bohemian hideout, a band of rebels hoping to discover the secret of the lost texts of rock and roll. What the rebels actually discover is that Gazza is the key to their plight.

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The story’s pretty predictable from there on and that’s mainly where the problem lies. There is nothing in the story to pull emotional investment from an audience. Yes, the plot is about reclaiming music, out  from the clutches of programmes like The X-Factor and bands like Westlife, Girls Aloud and all those other “poster boys/girls with backing tracks” that appear to be clones of each other. The whole show plays like a pantomime but it couldn’t even claim to do that right because good pantomimes do make an audience care for the characters. The cast of this, though excellent, didn’t grab me much. I found myself not caring if Gazza and Scary Bush ended up together or not, and there were points, especially in the second half when I wished Kevin Kennedy would remove his head from Brian May’s back passage but how and ever.

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Coming back to the cast, they really are excellent, in particular Brenda Edwards as the Killer Queen. She had a lovely Tina Turner quality to her voice which suited the songs assigned to her. Excellent also was Sarah French-Ellis as Scaramouche, written almost as a kind of Catherine Tate-esque character but with a fabulous singing voice. It’s ironic however that despite the musical’s railing of music shows like X-Factor et al, a large number of the main cast are people who were participants in these shows at some point. The show has been running since 2002, before the inception and mass increase of such programming. I would like to have seen this show at that point, just to compare the script. This new version lays blame on the X Factor for the death of music. I wonder what they blamed in 2002.

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The production in general, is excellent. Choreography, music, media such as the screens at the back of the stage. It was pointed out to me that such was the style of the show, there would have been very little need for a director, just a good choreographer because the story never lets up for too long before bursting back into song and dance.

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The music is, well it’s Queen isn’t it? Like them or hate them, well actually, if you hate them you wouldn’t bother reading about WWRY. The thing about Queen’s music is that it is already so theatrical that it seemed only logical to put it on a stage as a musical. But while shows like Mamma Mia were produced as a story including songs from ABBA, WWRY is written as a musical of songs from Queen, with the smallest possible semblance of a plot thrown in.

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Which was utterly silly. Because they could have written an entire musical based on the one song they made a mess of. I felt they should have cordoned off the stage after the show and called CSI. Everyone knows the Bohemian Rhapsody – probably the greatest Queen song, probably one of the greatest songs ever, to many people. At 6 minutes long, Bohemian Rhapsody tells its own simple, elegant but ultimately interpretative story if you actually bother to listen and think about it. Writer Ben Elton uses the song very loosely throughout the musical, the sacred scriptures of rock and roll, effectively being the Bohemian Rhapsody but they should have made more out of that point – it should have had a bigger, more pivotal moment in the show.

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Most simply put, Bohemian Rhapsody should have been the song that grabbed us by the guts and made us invest some emotion into the show – it should have been that “Hurrah” moment, but the way they positioned, it appeared to simply be an afterthought. Sang after the finale, and the bows, it wasn’t even part of the musicals narrative by then. It was just there because it had to be. As I previously said, they could have written the show around the story of this song but didn’t. They ultimately missed the boat by about 12 years on that count.

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The one thing about these kinds of musicals that irritates me, is the kind of audience it attracts. It seemed to me that many of the audience at the show felt as though they were at a rock gig. They cheered after every second line, they booed characters as though it were a pantomime and on a few occasions even heckled the cast members on the stage! I found myself thinking that I would love to see them sitting through an act of Les Miserables or Jekyll & Hyde. I accept that people were there to have a good time but when someone sporadically stands up in front of you, mid song to air guitar, I’m afraid I have to kick their good time in the proverbial. I’ve heard numerous similar stories from other shows like Mamma Mia and Dirty Dancing as well, in which you can’t actually hear what the cast are saying because the audience full of hen parties are too busy screaming hysterically at Johnny’s ultra-dynamic head turn.

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Perhaps it’s the influence of the venue as well. The O2, or the Point as it will always be known to me, is first and foremost, a gig venue and all of the characteristics that go with a gig venue seem to bleed into any other events in it. My thinking is that, when the Grand Canal Theatre opens, the O2 will be primarily a gig venue, especially seeing as Grand Canal is an actual theatre, whereas the O2 is really only a venue.

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But back to We Will Rock You…

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At its simplest, the show is a tribute to Queen, crafted with the love and care of someone who loves the band perhaps more than life itself. Ben Elton ensures that there are plenty of occasions in the script where he can play up the achievements of Queen – a particularly long monologue from Pop had me wondering if it was actually scripted or if the old coot was just blathering on trying to empty his brain of all the information stored there.

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But while the show itself, is based on the music by Queen, it is the quieter moments dedicated and paying homage to Freddie Mercury that are ultimately the defining parts of the show. A lovely rendition of ‘No-One But You (Only the good die young)’ in the first half is a fitting tribute to the bands front man. While ‘These Are the Days of Our Lives’ in the second half is a lovely reminder of Freddie’s last days, it being the last song released before his death. Just as the bohemians need Gazza to lead their revolt, Queen without Freddie Mercury would perhaps never have been. It certainly would not have resulted in a Broadway musical smash hit, anyway.

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For every one thing that I disliked about the show (which admittedly was not a lot), there were at least 2 or 3 things that I did like. A technically excellent production, it is ultimately let down by its lack of story or emotional investment. So yes, I liked more than I disliked about it. It’s just a pity that my dislikes were much weightier than any of the likes.

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By no means is it a bad show. It is highly enjoyable if you just want a night of listening to Queen music and lamenting the fact that your parents didn’t have you a few years earlier so you might have seen them in Slane.

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If you want to sit back, tap your foot and simply enjoy the music then We Will Rock You is probably for you.

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Personally though, I prefer my shows to have a bit more emotional oomph.

Posted in: Reviews