Rock of Ages – Darlington Racecourse

Writer: Chris D’Arienzo

Arranger and orchestrator: Ethan Popp

Director and choreographer: Nick Winston

Half rock concert, half burlesque show, half pantomime, and take the excesses and bad fashion decisions of the 80s and compose them up to eleven, Rock of ages is as subtle as a kick to the crotch.

With a simple fairy tale-style story, lots of fourth wall-breaking jokes, lots of self-referential jokes, and actors who come out of character on a regular basis, Rock of ages is as close to a panto-equivalent musical theater as anything else. However, the skimpy costumes, bawdy humor, and hints of misogynism and racism in the (admittedly often funny) storyline mean that this is certainly not the case for children. However, there is still a lot to enjoy here – in a sort of hen party / bachelor party.

The story follows the boy and girl from a small town Drew and Sherrie who meet in the big city – namely Los Angeles – and fall in love, fall back and come back in love. Meanwhile, an evil real estate developer threatens to demolish the Sunset Strip and destroy the city’s heritage, especially the Bourbon Room, a filthy music venue with a rich history. All of this is played accompanied by classic rock songs from the 1980s and encompasses everything big and strong about the era.

The name on the marquee of this production is Strictly Kevin Clifton as famous rocker Stacee Jaxx. The role is little more than an extended cameo and despite great general talent across all departments, Clifton feels misinterpreted in the part that perhaps calls for someone taller and more imposing in physical stature. Rhiannon Chesterman is a charming and cheerful Sherrie who always manages to convey emotions when needed, and Luke Walsh does well in the extremely underwritten role of Drew, displaying an impressive voice. Joe Gash plays Lonny, the evening’s narrator and emcee. Gash brings in a lot of energy and flamboyance, but a single-note sung line delivery often makes his presence squeaky, miserable when it’s the character with the most going and having all the best lines. Ross Dawes is the owner of an aging hippie bar, Dennis, and although he gets lost in the noise to begin with, he’s quickly establishing himself as one of the strongest artists here. Far from subtle but equally impressive is Vas Constanti as the German villain Hertz, and even more outrageous is Andrew Carthy who pretty much steals the show as Franz, and who, along with Gabriella Williams’ Regina, delivers the very idiot Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Jenny Fitzpatrick as a judge brings a bit of soul (in more than one way) to the proceedings, stopping the show with her voice in Any Way You Want It.

The stationary ensemble evokes a rock concert with simple additions to denote scene changes. This leads to a fairly smooth rhythm that never stops, although the constant presence of a huge screen above the set that is never in use is confusing. There are a lot of awesome lighting effects on display and while there were some fun (scripted) issues with lighting cues and positioning, during the press performance there were also lots of unscripted lighting errors that seem to stem from neglect or lack of rehearsal. Musically, the show is awesome and the small but talented group is clearly having a good time. However, when musicians are having fun their volume tends to increase and the show is plagued by sound balancing issues, especially in the many stages where dialogue is emphasized.

This manufacture of Rock of ages is flashy and fun, but also feels a bit hollow and dispensable. However, even the most cynical of viewers are sure to be swept away by the show’s gloriously nourishing finale on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing.

Works until 27e November 2021