Review: Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre)

This faux-medieval musical features classic rock tunes and a piecemeal script

L-R Chris Cowley, Bleu Woodward, Katie Birtill, Kelly Hampson and Rebekah Lowings
Rebecca Lowings, Bleu Woodward and Katie Birtill
© Mark Dawson

Game of Thrones, Shakespeare and, er, Jon Bon Jovi. On paper, the elements of this new musical, created by Jennifer Marsden, always were a bit weird. Medieval maidens and rock guitar solos? Surely it couldn't work.

Well, having now seen the piece, I can confirm that no, it doesn't work. At all. From its dodgy, dour, rickety castle sets, to its clunky, strong-arming of tunes into a horribly damp squib of a plot, it struggles and strains its way through two and a half hours.

Knights of the Rose begins with a bawdy war scene where lots of buff men draw their very long swords and dance-fight, while singing Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory". These are Prince Gawain and his band of merry knights, who are returning home victorious after fighting for England (although historians will dispute that this setting resembles anything in England's past). Waiting for them back at home is Lady Isabel and Princess Hannah along with King Aethelstan and his queen. On arrival, Gawain hooks up with Isabel and Sir Hugo with Hannah. But the evil Sir Palamon's pissed because he wants Hannah, and Sir Horatio's sad because he wants Isabel. They all go to war again and as a result the love-triangle gets turned on its head until some semblance of 'happy ending' is arrived at.

Basically, the plot is fairly non-existent and serves mainly as a vehicle for songs such as "Addicted to Love", "Hero" and "Total Eclipse of the Heart". But there are far too many songs and the bits inbetween (the 'script') are excruciating. Marsden's dialogue is an oddball mix of Shakespearean olde-worlde English that tries to sound poetic and really just sounds bombast. I found myself willing the songs to start, as listening to them was just about OK.

And that is down to the strong cast. Knights of the Rose's one redeeming factor is the crack team of performers who do manage to rock the rock tunes. Katie Birtill as Princess Hannah gives a storming "Holding Out for a Hero" alongside Rebekah Lowings' Lady Isabel. And Chris Cowley as Palamon, Oliver Savile as Sir Hugo, Matt Thorpe as Sir Horatio and Andy Moss as Gawain are all robust and compelling singers.

The problem comes with the segues between song and text. At one point Savile and Birtill sing "Hero" and she literally begins the song, speaking the first lines, rather than singing them. It gets much worse than that, however, and the use of REM's "Everybody Hurts", sung when news of a knight's death comes back to the castle, is one of the most toe-curling moments I've seen in musical theatre.

Random guitar solos – is this medieval England or isn't it? – Diego Pitarch's hefty, wobbly sets and a horribly uncertain tone (are we supposed to laugh or swoon?) come together to create an evening of overblown ridiculousness. We're so used to seeing this kind of faux-historical world now on TV, that having it on stage in this way looks positively pantomimic. A night to remember? This Knight is a night to forget.