School of Rock – Review – Hull New Theatre

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By @Roger Crow and Betsy Greenway, September 2021

I can’t say I was desperate to see School of Rock on stage. I’d loved the film when I saw it in 2004, but despite being a great idea, and boasting a terrific performance from Jack Black, I hadn’t watched the movie since then.

Two of the key forces behind the stage show initially weren’t even bothered about watching the movie years ago, but their respective kids eventually changed their minds. Thank heavens they did, because when Andrew Lloyd Webber gets excited about converting a movie into a stage musical, things happen.

I like to know as little about a show or film as possible before going in, in case something clouds my judgement. A Jim Steinman musical like Bat Out of Hell? Sign me up. A stage version of Amelie or Back to the Future? Yes please. A Lloyd Webber musical? Hmm. I still have mental scars of seeing Jesus Christ Superstar on TV a few years ago, and Starlight Express was just okay on stage.

The thing about rock musicals is they need to come from the heart, and to paraphrase the key protagonist of this show. “You’re not hardcore… Andrew”. Or so I thought.

If you’d asked me who wrote the School of Rock book, the last person I’d have said was Julian Fellowes. Like Lloyd Webber, the brains behind Downton Abbey seemed light years from the rock side of things, and yet perfect for the official school element. Thankfully co-writer Glenn Slater ensures the rocky factor has that ring of authenticity.

The main setting is one of those prestigious American schools which cost parents a fortune; the staff are so buttoned up, there’s little wonder the kids turn into brainwashed drones designed for blue chip companies. Nothing wrong in that of course. All parents want their kids to get a great career, but at what expense?

Into this prim and proper environment comes the Tasmanian Devil that is Dewey Finn (Jake Sharp). Ejected from the band he helped create, and neck-deep in rent arrears, he’s desperate for cash.

So when the chubby, rock-loving singer/songwriter/musician takes a call intended for his hen-pecked mate and landlord Ned Schneebly (Matthew Rowland), offering a lucrative temp job as a teacher, Finn passes himself off as you know who.

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“Lovable rebel hero”

As the show’s first touring production kicks off at Hull New Theatre, and the voice of Mr Lloyd Webber assures us that “The kids do play all their instruments”, we settle in for one of those nights to remember.

The sets by Anna Louizos are superb and beautifully crafted. They slot into place in seconds, perfectly creating the illusion of Dewey’s bedroom; the school; a bar, and the venue where the finale takes place, among other settings.

As our lovable rebel hero adjusts to school life with all the grace of a bull tiptoeing through a China shop, he soon discovers his pupils are gifted musicians, even if their style is more classical than classic rock. (There’s a nice in-joke about one of the young singers murdering a version of ‘Memory’ from Lloyd Webber’s Cats, and the weird movie version also gets a gentle drubbing).

So naturally Dewey transforms their curriculum into something light years from what it should be, and gets away with it. For days.

It doesn’t matter about the logistics of kids playing rock music in their classroom and no passing teacher wondering why. School of Rock the movie and the stage show has that Road Runner quality in which the outrageous, impossible stuff happens because the story takes precedence over the reality.

And of course as the kids warm to the wonderful world of rock, fake Ned turns into the surrogate dad they need because their real fathers are too distracted with business to pay them enough attention.

There’s also a chance for romance as he tries to persuade uptight teacher Rosalie Mullins (Rebecca Lock) to let the kids go on a field trip, in the hope of winning the Battle of the Bands contest.

The power of beer and Stevie Nicks are the keys to unlocking that wild woman inside of her. She’s a character just as memorable as Dewey, though more because she’s a lonely soul who buried that love of rock rather than keeping the dream alive.

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“Pulls off the near impossible”

Yes, School of Rock is one of those perfect multi-generational stories that works for kids and their parents or guardians.

The songs, including ‘Stick it to the Man’, and ‘In the End of Time’, have that ear worm quality, and fans of the show who have history with the production no doubt got a lot more out of the tunes than this newcomer.

Are the kids any good? Well, while the songs are okay, the young cast are phenomenal. Whether singing, dancing, playing drums or keyboards, each of them is a superstar in their own right. That introduction by Andrew does keep mentally returning as you watch a youngster play a huge guitar with the skill of a veteran rocker. And don’t get me started on bass envy. Talk about too cool for school. It’s inspiring stuff, and there’s no doubt a good percentage of those bright young things on stage will be the household names of the next decade or more.

At the beating heart of it all is Jake Sharp. It takes a few minutes to adjust to that Jack Black comparison thing, but once he takes on the Dewey/Ned role, it may as well be Jack on stage. The guy is a force of nature, channelling the Hollywood superstar while making the part his own. And while he burns up the stage with a series of exhausting physical gags, there’s little wonder he has the audience in the palm of his hand for the duration.

So School of Rock pulls off the near impossible. It proves that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes really are hardcore – sorry I misjudged you chaps – and the stage show is every bit as good as the movie.

Oh, and 18 months of hiatus has reminded me how perfect the venue is for this sort of thing. A terrific show in a fantastic setting. From start to finish, we may well have been on Broadway or the West End rather than Hull. Yes, really.

I’ll leave the final words to Betsy Greenway, 14, who is more qualified to review the show than me, having seen the original version in London years ago. She and dad Tony (who memorably interviewed Max and Harvey) also had a splendid time at the Saturday night performance.

“I loved the film – but this is an incredible night out,” enthuses Betsy. “First of all, the kids play all their own instruments – and their voices are amazing – and they’re about 12 or 13, which is kind of crazy. The staging was brilliant and the soundtrack is really memorable.

“I’ve been playing it on repeat ever since I got home. No wonder the cast got a standing ovation last night.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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