The irony surely can’t be lost that an anti-establishment musical that talks of “Sticking it to the man” has been written by two of the most quintessentially British establishment figures in modern popular culture. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes both sit on the benches of the House of Lords, somewhere that couldn’t be further removed from the guitar strings world of this screen to stage adaptation.
Lloyd Webber has of course got some history when it comes to rock. Delving into his back catalogue in the early years there is a definite rock influence to be heard so probably no real surprise. Fellows seems to be a more unusual fit, but this is a story that is primarily about children finding a voice and about a lost man finding an anchor in life which just so happens to be those same children, so perhaps that human story is universal and matters not your background.
Based on the Jack Black film of 2003 School of Rock is a pretty familiar premise. Dewey is a down and out waster, thrown out of his beloved band and crashing at a friends house where he has already more than outstayed his welcome. Masquerading as his best friend he blags his way into becoming a supply teacher at well to do Horace Green High School. With his initial distaste of the prim school kids soon subsiding he spies the opportunity to teach them all his beloved rock and to form a new band. With all kinds of messages in the there to read as you will about education, upbringing and even a bit of class this is a pretty simple tale but with a solid moral compass all the same.
Fellowes and Lloyd Webber, along with lyricist Glenn Slater try hard to avoid too much sentimentality and you can see they have tried to keep a rock edge, but this isn’t always successful. When the kids sing their song pleading to their parents “If only you would listen” it borders on the saccharin but does strike a bit of a chord at the same time. That however is mainly due to the uniformly outstanding performances of the children in this show.
It is no understatement to say that these kids are quite simply outstanding. Each of them have created and portray vivid and real characters of their own. With singing, dancing and acting all in the bag they are shining examples of just what standards children can achieve in this business. They are fearless, funny and supremely talented, and if, as Lloyd Webber’s announcement at the start of the show states, they really are playing their own instruments then Broadway has a remarkable pool of talent heading its way in the future.
If this group of kids are remarkable then they also have the talents of leading man Alex Brightman to thank for being the glue that brings them all together. Whilst Brightman may have done nothing particularly innovative with the role (it is all very Jack Black) he exudes so much energy that it energises the entire production. With what is otherwise a collection of pretty standard performances from the rest of the cast set upon pretty unremarkable designs by Anna Luizos this could easily have the hallmark of a very dreary night. Brightman saves the day with his bounding enthusiasm and his clear respect for the young cast that support him all the way.
Annoyingly you will leave the Winter Garden nodding your head to the strains of “Stick it to the man” for the rest of the night in your head but the memory that you will take away more than any other will be just how phenomenal those kids were.