ROCK OF AGES
Southend Operatic and Dramatic Society at the Palace Theatre Westcliff
An unabashed juke-box musical, showcasing the greatest glam metal merchants of the 80s. Though not, as it turned out, the title number from Def Leppard.
And it brought a diverse crowd to the Palace to have their faces melted at the tea-time matinée: rockers, pensioners, school-kids enthusiastically supporting their mates.
The balance between tribute, parody, humour and love-interest is a delicate one, but SODS serve up their usual very professional production values, and give this slight story a more than decent outing.
The eighties hits are strung out on a thin line of plot. The usual things – dreams of stardom, threat from heartless developers, a naïve girl torn between fame and true love. Taking us back to sexier times ? Well, more sexist, certainly …
The show is driven by the music, excellently done by the on-stage “Arsenal”, with new MD Keeley Wickham on keys. The nature of the unsubtle eighties sound means that dialogue sometimes has to be shouted over the underscore, and the lyrics are occasionally hard to catch. The numbers, or at least the titles, are loosely tied to the narrative, and the colourful chorus sometimes seems to comment on events. There's little conventional choreography [Vicky Wyatt] – the two finales come closest, with ironic jazz hands at the end of Act One – Whitesnake's Here I Go Again. Many of the numbers are given a dramatic twist; all of them are compellingly performed. A trio, later joined by Stacee and the girls, for Styx's Too Much Time On My Hands, a duet for Damn Yankees' High Enough amongst the highlights.
The versatile, talented company take the rock genre in their stride, led by David Watkins and Milli-Mae Cage as the love interest, brought together by a shared taste for slurpees.
Plenty of broad-brush character work from, amongst others, director Ian Gilbert as the villainous Hertz, Ewan Dunlop as his OTT effete offspring, Les Cannon as the club owner, enjoying an Oscar moment – one of the few real speeches in the show – and elevation to the angelic choir at the end. He was also the voice of Ozzy Osbourne before curtain-up.
The preening rock star Jaxx, skin-tight leggings to attract the groupies, is played with evident relish by Nick Bright, and Heather Cooper brings strength of character and a fine voice to city planner turned protest leader Regina. A subtler, but no less effective performance, with no histrionics, from Phie Carlile as Justice Charlier, proprietor of the Venus Club strip joint.
The show is held together by the sound guy/MC/narrator/dramatic conjuror Lonny, brilliantly done by Jonny Buxton in a mullet, guying the genre, working the audience, interfering and generally being annoying, though not as annoying as Russell Brand.
The staging is simple – cut-away wall, the band upstage, the Bourbon Club. An ingenious fold-out platform brings us the men's bathroom, the planner's office …
Not the best of the juke-box musicals, but hard to imagine it better done on the non-professional stage, a good night out for rock aficionados and musical theatre fans alike.