Popular with families, millennials who grew up with the film, and "we'll give it a try" theatregoers see School of Rock as a break from traditional musical theatre. That's partly true- not many West End musicals feature Smoke On the Water and references to brown M&Ms. However, School Of Rock is also a Lloyd Webber piece, so contains a fair amount of ballads, vibrato and over-the-top performances. Fans of the film will know that the story centres around layabout musician Dewey Finn (played by Jake Sharp) who steals his best friend's identity to masquerade as a teacher, realises his class of repressed students have musical talent, and enters them in a battle of the bands contest. Lessons about parent-child relationships, self-confidence and creativity are learnt along the way, and the whole shebang ends in a lively rock concert. The child actors in the musical play their instruments live, which adds to the realism and excitement of the show. School of Rock is the West End debut for many of the children in the cast I saw, making their musical skills and professionalism all the more impressive. The adorable Wilson Freeman gave a standout performance as Zack, playing multiple guitar solos, displaying impressive vocal skills, and handling the most developed of the children’s back stories as Zack struggles to communicate with his workaholic father. Special mentions also go to Serrena Bliss, Savannah Pages and Ashton Murphy in their roles as band manager Summer, backing singer Sophie and techie Mason respectively. The energy the children bring to the stage livens the show immensely.
Vocally, Sharp's performance as Dewey was rather hit-and-miss, and he seemed undecided if he was recreating Jack Black’s portrayal of Dewey in the film, or bringing his own spin on the role. Mark Anderson as Dewey's best friend Ned was a fun performance, and Suzy McAdam, playing headmistress Miss Mullins, displayed strong vocals in her solo “Where Did The Rock Go”.
The score, far from Lloyd Webber's best, is largely forgettable. “Stick It To The Man” is the best song, and Lloyd Webber knows this too, as he reprises it not once but twice. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are sometimes infuriating- I'm not entirely sure what he means by "Why march to someone else's caravan? Especially those you're so much cooler than”. Additionally, the dialogue is hindered by the cast performing in American accents. Although this is in keeping with the film and original Broadway production, the accents are unnecessary and add a whininess to the dialogue and vocals. The Gillian Lynne Theatre may also not have helped with sound quality- while the theatre is big enough to suggest a rock-concert setting, it meant that some of the sound got lost. At times it was difficult to keep track of what anybody was saying.
Laurence Connor's direction contains some interesting touches. I especially enjoyed Mason creating lighting effects by repeatedly flicking the classroom lights on and off. However, School of Rock lacks the creative quirky charm of the similarly-themed Matilda the Musical. A few elements of the show seem dated, such as the stereotypical squealy campness of the gay characters, multiple jokes about Dewey's weight, and uses of "slut" and "bitch". Some parents might find this, the occasional drug references, and the "I'm pretty sure I've touched these kids too" quote taken from the film inappropriate for a family musical. However, the audience when I saw the show were very engaged- cheering when Ned stands up to his uptight girlfriend, gasping at the plot twists and "eeew"ing along with Dewey's gross-out habits. While I found School of Rock to be a flawed and largely forgettable show, the enthusiasm of the audience suggests that, going into its fourth year, it is showing no signs of slowing down.