The idea of two Tory peers coming up with a show whose message is a loud and defiant “stick it to The Man” is only one surprise in this heart-warming and hugely enjoyable musical.
Andrew Lloyd Webber leaves the epic sweeping strings of Phantom and Sunset Boulevard, and returns to his rock roots — wailing guitar riffs not heard since Jesus Christ Superstar — to craft a score that’s all infectious, pounding beats and ballads with a rock slant rather then operatic grandeur. More surprisingly, Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes has produced a genuinely funny book that takes the best bits of the 2003 movie and embellishes them with up-to-date references that work superbly well with Glenn Slater’s witty lyrics.
This adaptation – that feels a natural fit for the theatre from the word go which is not always the case with screen-to-stage – stars David Fynn as down-on-his luck rock guitarist and slacker Dewey Finn, who steals his flatmate’s identity to take a job as a relief teacher at a prestigious prep school. Once inside the hallowed halls, academically challenged Finn dispenses with normal studies, begins indoctrinating the class with the glory of rock music and instils these uptight, emotionally neglected kids with a sense of belonging, just by being “in the band”.
So far all simplistic, manipulative stuff? Not a bit of it. From the moment diminutive Lois Jenkins as Katie straps on a bass guitar that’s almost twice her size, you don’t stop smiling as Dewey grooms his charges for a battle-of the-bands contest at a local club.
All the kids are simply astonishing. Faultless American accents, impeccable comic timing even in large ensemble scenes. And they can play. On the night I went, as well as young Lois on bass: Jude Harper-Wrobel on drums, James Lawson on keyboards and Tom Abisgold as one of the meanest axemen who ever picked up a Les Paul. Not to mention three of the sassiest back-up singers you could wish for.
While it’s the scenes where the excellent Fynn works with the kids that are the most fun, the show works so well because the moments with the grown-ups don’t slacken the pace but give things extra nuance. Fynn’s scene in a bar with buttoned-up headteacher Miss Mullins (excellent Florence Andrews), who’s been suppressing her inner rock chick for years, gives us one of the show’s stand-out numbers.
School of Rock is perfect family entertainment that shouts a message about the power of music and camaraderie loud and proud. I defy anyone not to strap on an air guitar and rock right along.
School of Rock is at the New London Theatre
Photograph by Tristram Kenton