Hild Bede Theatre’s (HBT) production of Rock of Ages was, to put it mildly, a mixed effort. But, despite some fairly glaring technical errors, the cast and crew have managed to put on a production that promises an entertaining romp through some classic 1980s bangers.
Of course, staging a Jukebox musical such as Rock of Ages has its inherent limitations. Don’t go into it expecting an extraordinary plot, or a masterfully handled narrative – because quite frankly there is none. Rather, HBT’s creatives have produced a crowd-pleasing and entertaining evening of some well-known rock songs, and their commitment to such a genre is evident throughout. Director Elliot Mather noted in their preview that ‘you’re not going to get a perfect vocal, but what you’re going to get is a voice that is hard and tired but produces a story.’ Mather’s comments are fitting, as several cast members were perhaps limited in their vocal capacities, but nevertheless managed to produce vibrant, humorous characterizations on stage. Tyler Rainford (Lonny) and Nathan Chatelier (Dennis) were a particularly engaging duo, providing distinct moments of hilarity and a unique rendition of ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling.’
However, unfortunately, the production’s technical aspects served as a major weakness, as there were audible errors during the opening night. Innumerable microphone errors were notable, serving as a jarring and uncomfortable error that will hopefully be ironed out after a few performances. While positioning the band onstage provided a nice alteration from typical staging efforts, frequently their accompaniment drowned out some of the musical numbers while making such microphone issues more visible. Plot became increasingly unclear, as vital moments of narration were often incoherent due to such technical errors; although this did somewhat improve, as the cast built up their own necessary volume, and larger musical numbers became admittedly sleeker as the production progressed.
Altogether professionalism was evident in all the cast members, as they adapted to some of the production’s blunders with a carefully managed poise – Rainford was particularly skilled in his improvisation in such moments, managing to keep the pace going and even turning a broken microphone into a quippy joke. Indeed, the production was at its best when it wasn’t taking itself seriously. Despite its issues, the production’s self-referential undertones and stylised narration allowed it to be, quite simply, fun. Such enjoyment can clearly be seen in many of the cast numbers. From terrible German accents – Matt Lloyd as Franz was a hilarious presence onstage – to ludicrous scenes in a strip club, the production was decidedly over the top, to the audience’s evident satisfaction.
Collectively, the cast should be praised for their varied and distinct roles onstage, as well as their maintained enthusiasm. The Chorus gave a strong effort, but their choreography and timing onstage were somewhat mixed; some members were evidently more confident onstage than others, providing a varied flair and energy to numbers. The production’s leads, Amy Barrett (Sherrie) and Richie Johnsen (Drew) showed distinct musical talent, although their characterisation and acting onstage was perhaps underdeveloped. Despite this, their solos and duets produced some of the high points of the musical, with the final number especially showing off their musical skills. A personal favourite of mine was Finola Southgate, who played Regina with a hefty dose of talent and humour, adeptly belting out ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ with all the anarchistic commitment necessary for such a role.
Nevertheless, energy somewhat dragged in the second act with the introduction of more generic slow songs. Whilst these could have potentially been handled in a more creative manner, numbers such as ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ were evidently lacking in energy. Combined with such sound issues, the second act was almost tediously long but was benefitted by a speedy resolution and well-managed final numbers.
Further, while lighting was used well throughout, I would question the far too frequent use of blackouts. At times, scene changes were awkwardly long, hindering the audience’s engagement with the ensuing scenes. Additionally, the interval somewhat undermined the production’s professionalism, as the band members and production team were visible to the audience throughout. Meanwhile, staging and set design were creative, although relatively minimal, and provided the necessary 80s glam to the production using vinyl records and a gaudy beaded curtain. But, while I enjoyed the use of levels, I would question why one production needed so many doors and entrance points.
Let’s be honest, the opening night of Rock of Ages had its faults. But I am certain that many of these will be soon ironed out, leaving an otherwise nostalgic riot of entertainment. The production’s strengths come in its varied and deeply nostalgic rendition of some undeniably catchy tunes, as well as the energetic and hilarious performances by a number of cast members. Sure, the musical was not perfect, but the cast and crew have used their many talents and resources to create an otherwise adept, and relatively enjoyable production.
‘Rock of Ages’ will be performed in Caedmon Hall from Wednesday, 22nd February until Saturday 25th February at 19:30 (with one additional matinee on Saturday at 14:30). Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Hild Bede Theatre