We Will Rock You – Who is the reall Killer (of) Queen? (Theatre Review)

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We Will Rock You

Sydney Lyric Theatre

From Thursday 28 April. You can grab your tickets here

As a hard core Queen fan, I always knew I was in for a punish with We Will Rock You. The “rock musical” that we masticate so ferociously these days is always an anemic affair, a facsimile of its original much like fat free milk, sugarless sweeteners, margarine and non-alcohol beer. And like these other replacements for the real thing, the copy falls short and turns out to be far worse for our health than the original. Rock musicals are dumbed down faux amalgamations of two declining live experiences, theatre and music, designed to give us a television version of both on the big stage in an age when it is assumed we can no longer tolerate the cerebral thrills of either creative medium unfiltered. We Will Rock You is no exception to this, and it is definitely not a night for hard core fans of which I am one. The best thing on offer for this audience member is the odd musical interlude that references great Queen moments like the ‘March of the Black Queen,’ ‘Good Old Fashioned lover Boy’ and many of Brian May’s iconic riffs. But don’t expect homage to the truly great, underappreciated Queen songs like ‘Sheer Heart Attack,’ ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ (the birth of thrash), ‘Liar’ or the iconic teenage anthem ‘Spread Your Wings,’ that (strangely) would have fit in with the narrative of this show better than most of the chosen songs.

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All of the above notwithstanding, I took my mother to We Will Rock You, because she is a passionate Queen fan-lite. A devotee of Queens 1981 Greatest Hits for whom the murkier depths of Queens oeuvre have never been interesting enough to explore. There are millions of these fans who’ve never spent the hours I did deep inside headphones separating out John’s base and Rogers voice; and so there should be, because Queen has one of the most impressive arrays of popular songs of any band in history. For these folk there are all the popular tunes, and even homage’s such as ‘Seven Seas of Rye’ to give the show some much needed depth. For these audience members the joy of seeing the familiar songs well performed is a thrill and a delight.

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However, the tragic caveat here is Ben Elton’s woeful narrative that one would struggle to make worse. It’s a misogynistic affair, glorifying the white man’s ability to rescue everyone, relegating women to love interests and synthetic fem-bot villains, while perhaps most strange of all, launching a thinly veiled attack on female rock stars. In a crucial scene a group of dissidents from the future compose a list of the great rock makers whom they pit against a modernised commercial brand of pop. While men such as Freddy Mercury, Elvis and Michael Jackson are celebrated, women such as Aretha Franklin, Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, Suzi Quatro, Grace Slick, and Tina Turner are painfully absent while choices like Katy Perry, Brittany Spears and the Spice Girls are made in their stead – women who exemplify the music We Will Rock You rallies against. The message is clear – women contributed nothing to rock and are to blame for modern music’s having lost its way. This feigned assault on female rock stars coupled with a post-interval attack on Scaramouch (our heroes love interest) because she is more intelligent than her messianic lover but won’t shut up and mind her place, make the night cringe-worthy for thinking women. Even without this blatant anti-female trajectory, the narrative is a choppy disastrous mess of clichéd nonsense that injects random plot points only to discard them when the obligatory referential song is complete. Queen has a rich lyrical history, and for almost every scenario you can conjecture there are three or four worthy songs to mould into a story. For Ben Elton to be jumping the shark at every turn is nothing short of peculiar. It ends up being a strange anti-Queen testament, and one wonders at Brian and Roger’s agreement to be part of such a blithering mess.

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However, Ben Elton is rescued from his own nonsense by those brilliant songs and a superb cast, ironically the best of which are the women. Standouts are Casey Donovan as Killer Queen, Erin Clare as Scaramouch and Jaz Flowers as Oz. Of the men, Brian Mannix brings a delightful and much needed “WTF are we doing here?” laid back vibe to his role including authenticity with his history and fun with his rock-cool-clumsiness as a stage performer. The ensemble is tight and the choreography thrilling, including a campiness I am sure Freddy Mercury would have appreciated.

Queen is a difficult band to get right. They’re a specific blend of hard rock, pop and glam while equally being authentic genre leaders with a highly intellectual approach to rock. They always navigated this terrain skillfully, with Freddy’s left of centre campy glam being central to the bands ability to rise above all categorizations. Much of this is missed in this musical, and oddly refused in favour of an affected political agenda from Ben Elton that comes across as fifty decades out of touch. Queen themselves had problems with managers and big record labels and embraced future musical technology with gusto and joy. Elton’s old fashioned opinions which make no sound declarations seem at odds with the spirit of all that Queen stood for.

We Will Rock You is not one for the true believers, but my mother had a spectacular time.

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