Review: School of Rock (New London Theatre)
Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical arrives in London from Broadway
True, his first full-blown show was the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, but even that endeavour is full of the big, catchy tunes with which he made his name. Of those there is little trace in this fast-moving, loud and metal-motivated show, based on the film of the same name.
"Stick It to the Man", its standout and oft-repeated number, is brash, energetic and catchy. But "Memory", or "The Phantom of the Opera" it definitely ain't. Add to this the fact that the book is written by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes and the whole experience feels rather like falling down a wormhole into an alternate reality.
But in fact ever since Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Lloyd Webber has known that there is nothing like a large quantity of cute kids on stage to bring the house down. He pulls off the same trick here by turning his and the show's gaze very firmly on the children who are inspired by the activity of a renegade temporary teacher to unlock their inner rock god. The result is well-nigh irresistible.
The plot is incredibly simple. Failed rock star and all round wastrel Dewey Finn - described by his flatmate's girlfriend as a "barnacle with BO" - decides to solve his financial problems by pretending to be a supply teacher and taking up a post at the stuffy private school Horace Green where the pupils are - in Glenn Slater's witty lyrics - "solemn and serene."
His anarchic spirit fills the classroom; instead of teaching them he turns them into the band 'School of Rock' and trains them to take part in a battle of the bands.
Briskly directed by Laurence Connor and smartly choreographed by Joann M Hunter, the action unfolds with great fluency on a set of cleverly sliding panels designed by Anna Louizos. A romantic sub plot between Dewey and the neurotic head teacher, who longs to be Stevie Nicks, feels like a sentimental card too many, but otherwise events fairly zip along.
David Fynn plays Dewey with a kind of shambolic warm-heartedness, but it is the cast of children - all uniformly excellent - who are the stars.
What is so attractive about the show is the way its moral - that by taking up rock, the kids are liberated to find their own voice and communicate their hopes and dreams - is replicated by the action taking place on stage. As a small boy starts to strum an oversized guitar, and make a massive noise, or a silent girl discovers she is a great singer, the child performers themselves blossom in front of your eyes.The thrill of "You're in the Band" is that its liberating inclusivity embraces the audience too in the celebration of talent.
You'd need a heart of stone not to melt at its sheer joy.
School of Rock is booking at the New London Theatre until 12 February.