Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge – until Saturday 8th October 2022
Reviewed by Steph Lott
Most of us have a soft spot for classic rock songs. We enjoy belting them out at the top of our lungs while playing air guitar. From Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to Starship’s “We Built This City”, they are timeless, and guaranteed to feature on any rock anthems playlist. This is perhaps why Rock of Ages works so well. It is a jukebox musical which uses the best of these songs as the backdrop to its love story.
Set in the late 80s, the show moves along with high effervescent energy right from the start. The audience is introduced to the story by narrator Lonny Barnett, played by the talented Joe Gash. This is a lynchpin role and Gash channels a mixture of Justin Hawkins and Frank N. Furter in his depiction of Lonny, the Bourbon Room’s sound guy. Initially I thought Gash’s performance would really irritate me as it’s a bit shrieky at times. However ultimately Gash turned out to be a standout star. There is a lot of innuendo in his role that comes close to being cringeworthy, but he performs it brilliantly and keeps it (narrowly!) on the right side of the line. He is embraced by the audience who loved his bawdy buffoonery and plays the flamboyant character to perfection. There is no fourth wall in this show! Gash picks on a member of the audience (well done Gillian and her husband the vicar!), refers to an “Acting for Dummies” book, comments on reviews of the show and calls on the ensemble for jazz hands. He delivers some killer ad-libs which had the crowd in stitches. And let’s not forget what a fantastic voice he has, which is perfectly showcased in “I Can’t Fight this Feeling”
Through Lonny, we meet Drew, played by Sam Turrell, who is working in the Bourbon Room, a famous Hollywood bar which is much loved by everyone who goes there. Drew has bigger dreams of becoming a rock star, while his love interest, Sherrie, played by Gabriella Williams, has escaped her small town to pursue her ambition to become an actress. Of course, this romance is not going to be straightforward. With the bar under threat from evil developers, owner Dennis Dupree, played by Kevin Kennedy, (who most will remember as Curly Watts in Coronation Street) calls on rock star Stacee Jaxx (Cameron Sharp) to perform one last show with his band Arsenal to boost the Bourbon Room’s finances.
The story-line and songs are woven together effectively, and at times to great comic effect. There are some wonderful performances here by the whole cast who are not simply great comedians but fabulous singers too. Everyone gets a shot at the limelight but here are a few bits that stood out for me. David Breeds and Vicki Manser as mismatched duo, Franz and Regina, are brilliant when singing Pat Benatar’s, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. REO Speedwagon’s, “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” is another highlight. This charming duet between Dupree and Lonny showcases a sweet little subplot. It’s funny, but genuinely tender. And I particularly enjoyed the final moment as the two lie on the floor, outstretched arms touching fingers, just for a second, like Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel!
There are loads of silly funny bits which cracked me up. Wannabe rocker Drew arrived for his first-date picnic with Sherrie on a heroic motorbike, but a tiny mini version. And Dupree performs an amazing feat, cartwheeling across the stage. Who knew that Curly Watts had it in him?! Stacee Jaxx has an unusual approach to seduction when he suggests to a smitten Sherrie “This place is noisy – maybe you’d like to hang out in the men’s bathroom and talk about our dreams?”
Directed and choreographed by Nick Winston, Rock of Ages is a cracking show. The cast brings a tremendous energy to the stage, supported by a fabulous live band and an ensemble that’s second to none. The choreography Is sparking and vivacious, and Morgan Large’s set, sprinkled with spotlights and stacked with amps, takes you right back to the 80s. He cleverly uses three levels to keep your eyes moving and there’s always something amusing happening in the background, which makes every bit of the stage come alive.
This gloriously bonkers jukebox musical never takes itself too seriously. Full of ridiculous humour and self-parody, it is very funny and provides a fabulous platform to showcase just how great these songs are. From the choreography to the vocals, every song was performed with the high energy it demands. Rock of Ages isn’t a dignified classy show. It’s chaotic, it’s crude, and it’s very enjoyable. A great show with a strong cast, classic rock songs, and lots of laughter. One not to be missed.