A stonking hit on Broadway, at a stroke rescuing the ailing artistic reputation and re-booting the commercial fortunes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, School of Rock has now landed with an almighty kerrang of confidence in the West End.
The rave reviews Stateside suggested that Lloyd Webber and his associates – Julian Fellowes (book), Glenn Slater (lyrics) and Laurence Connor (director) – had made the creative grade in turning the much-loved 2003 Hollywood comedy into a musical. I caught it in New York this summer, and adored it. The big question, though, was whether the same magic could happen here. The answer is a resounding yes.
The stage version cleaves closely to the celluloid storyline, following the misadventures of Dewey Finn, a rock-loving slob who wangles an illicit gig as a supply teacher (faking his best friend’s identity) at a posh prep school. At Horace Green, he courts the risk of exposure while giving his over-regimented charges a liberating education in rock.
“Team” Lloyd Webber have improved on this vaguely preposterous but resonant fairytale of salvation through disobedience and primal playfulness. What was funny becomes doubly so. Where there were a handful of original songs, now there’s an album’s worth, busting with rare freshness and vitality. And where in the film you admired the precocious display of talent accompanied by a burgeoning rebellious tween spirit, on stage that happens right before your eyes, within deafening earshot.
The production hits exactly the same high notes of hysterical excitement as the New York version. Given that the youngsters (aged 10-13) don’t just have to play instruments but put on American accents and attitudes to boot, the achievement is greater. The venue, true, is smaller but, hey, when the assembled nippers pogo up and down in defiant sync to one of many show-stoppers, Stick It to the Man, the stalls vibrate in wonderfully alarming unison, too.
What has Fellowes brought to the table? A lot of the funniest lines are familiar from the film, among them Dewey’s disastrous appeal for calm to agitated parents: “I have been touched by your kids and I’m pretty sure I’ve touched them.”
Fellowes’s valuable contribution is one of fine-tuning – so that the whole story, which now gives more air-time to the pressure-cooker consequences of pushy parenting, powers along at an energetic, adrenal lick.
David Fynn is terrific as the chaotic-charismatic man-child: badly dressed, implicitly whiffy, his paunchy physique put through a sweat-inducing work-out, finally wooing and winning the uptight headmistress and closet Stevie Nicks fan Miss Mullins (Florence Andrews, A-star). Everyone plays their part to perfection, though, aided by tightly drilled, pencil-sharp choreography from Joann M Hunter.
At the performance I caught, lanky Oscar Francisco as keyboard-whiz Lawrence, Toby Lee, impressive on electric guitar as Zack, and Amma Ris, with a roof-raising rendition of Amazing Grace as the shy Tomika, made you feel weirdly like the proudest parent. The most enjoyable few hours money can buy.
Author: Dominic Cavendish