We Will Rock You

Worldwide smash hit musical by Queen and Ben Elton
Photo credit: Johan Persson
New Theatre, Oxford, Mon 2 March - Sat 7 March 2020

March 3, 2020
'Long live rock and roll, whatever that is'

We Will Rock You is a fun and energetic show that unashamedly knows and embraces its target demographic, from a position somewhere between a tribute show and a jukebox musical: an unlikely vision of the future that's nonetheless an enjoyable ride, due to being built from the iconic music of Queen.

I headed to a packed New Theatre auditorium on a Monday night, as a casual/moderate Queen fan and angsty millennial (this becomes important later!). The audience is greeted by a starry skyscape - possibly a nod to Brian May's astronomical interest - before projected text explains, Star Wars-style, that we are witnessing planet Earth (now renamed as the iPlanet) centuries from now, when the homogenising of pop by the likes of X-Factor has reached its apparently logical conclusion: a creativity-free dictatorship, where music is not made with love but manufactured by the GlobalSoft Corporation, and free-thinking and individualism are banned. We follow two young rebels, the self-christened Galileo 'Gaz' Figaro and his love interest Scaramouche (yes, really), on the run after being cast out from Gaga University for challenging the status quo. They meet up with other rebels, the Bohemians, who identify Galileo as a prophesied chosen one destined to bring back the spirit of 'Rock and roll, whatever that is' in a Rhapsody, based on his dreams comprising of fragments of rock lyrics. The fusion of musical references with this fantastical plot is clearly imaginative, if far from subtle.

The music is, of course, excellent: not just because of the source material (with the score being almost exclusively a selection of greatest hits), but also due to ingenious choices in the arrangement: while Ian McIntosh's Galileo does beautiful justice to Freddie Mercury's distinctive voice, many of the other parts are adapted to suit the performers' different vocal styles, instead of simply paying straightforward homage to the original tracks. The soloists are all hugely talented, and clearly enjoying themselves, but this approach is particularly effective for Jenny O'Leary's charismatically brassy Killer Queen and Amy Di Bartolomeo's Oz, by turns amusing and sincere. Another favourite performance for me was Adam Strong as the villainous Khashoggi, channelling Alan Rickman in his emphatic disdain. All together, the ensemble cast whipped up an audible storm that filled the ageing crowd with energy and had them pleading prematurely for an encore.

There is a tremendous amount of detail in the look of the show: speaking to a high production value. The set is one of the most elaborate I've ever seen, with projections and colourful lights giving the sci-fi stage design an almost cinematic quality. The costumes are also very enjoyable: dystopia never looked so sparkly! There are strokes of genius from Ben Elton, and I had to admire the re-purposing of the lyrics of 'One Vision' and 'Play The Game' into conformist propaganda. However, the majority of the laughs in the script came from the crow-barring of pop references into the dialogue, and from the sense that the show and its fans were grumpy old rock types, rolling their eyes at 'kids these days' and our dependence on phones. While some of the lyrical references have been modernised to include 'Gangnam Style' and Taylor Swift (as well as a redesigning of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, decked out with somewhat phallic 'microphones'), which courted laughs from younger sectors of the crowd, the prevailing attitude seemed peculiarly dated. The real political implications of our unprecedented technological advances are a rich seam of worry and parody, so it feels a bit lazy to stereotype to such a degree, leaving the show's message and its characters uncompelling. Nevertheless, it's possible to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the silliness, the glamour and, above all, the fabulous music, which undeniably fills the theatre.

The organiser says:

THE smash-hit Queen and Ben Elton musical, We Will Rock You, is coming to the New Theatre Oxford from March 2 – 7.

With 24 of Queen’s biggest hits and Ben Elton’s hilarious futuristic comedy writing combined, comes a show that boasts the scale and spectacle that marked the band’s legendary live performances. This global phenomenon will continue to be one of the most spectacular musicals to tour the United Kingdom & Ireland.

The show has seen unprecedented success in theatres and arenas around the world and the nine month tour will see the Rock Theatrical performed in front of thousands of rock fans around the country.

Since 2002, over 15 million theatregoers in 17 countries have been thrilled by We Will Rock You’s awe-inspiring production showcasing a number of Queen’s finest hits, including 'We Are The Champions', 'Radio Ga Ga', 'I Want To Break Free', 'Somebody To Love', 'Killer Queen', 'Don’t Stop Me Now', 'Under Pressure', 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 'Another One Bites The Dust' and, of course, 'We Will Rock You'. Before closing its glorious 12 year run at London’s Dominion Theatre, the show was performed an astonishing 4600 times.

The touring production of We Will Rock You reaches Oxford carrying with it an impressive legacy: when it first became news that one of Britain’s most phenomenally successful comedy writers Ben Elton was teaming up with legends of rock, Queen, for a musical there was much speculation on what such a unique collaboration would turn out.

So impressed after attending the original workshop, screen icon Robert De Niro and his company Tribeca came on board as American partners. De Niro continues to support the show, even making a special visit to London in 2013 to help celebrate the 10th anniversary in style. The audience erupted with thunderous applause, as he joined the cast on stage after the landmark performance.

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