There’s a concerted effort by the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch to get its audience in the mood for its latest production, Roll Over Beethoven. The bar, that bastion of overpriced wine, beer and ice cream, is offering milkshakes. The choice of background music when I went in was deliberate – ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, with the unmistakable falsetto of Frankie Valli, and a tune I am only aware of, ironically, through musical theatre, in the form of the West End production of Jersey Boys. Some of the staff were slightly embarrassed about the whole milkshake thing – it’s something they are under instruction to offer patrons. One barman, however, took it in his stride, even dressing like ‘a teenager in love’ (to quote Dion and the Belmonts). To top it all off, a jukebox has been installed in the bar as well.
My fears that the show would be a rambling musical eventually outstaying its welcome, given that it is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, proved unfounded, thankfully. This show is so tight that even before the house lights had gone down, the company had moved into position on stage (there is no curtain) and began singing the nanosecond after the ‘turn your mobile phones off please’ announcement was over.
First impressions do count – and a lyric describing 1956 in London grabbed my attention, for the wrong reasons. “We don’t even have Radio 1,” they sang. But how do you know what Radio 1 is if you’re in 1956? Note that it is ‘don’t’ rather than ‘didn’t’, so the lyric is not sung in retrospect, but in present tense. Anyway, it very quickly dawned on me that to get the most out of this show, the audience will need to have seen Hamlet, or read through the script, or at the very least have read a synopsis, in order to understand some of the in-jokes and allusions to the 400+ year old play.
For example, I was speaking with a fellow reviewer and his friend at the interval: he knew Shakespeare’s Hamlet, she had never seen it (she was not uncultured, mind – she had seen some Shakespeare plays, but Hamlet did not happen to be one of them). It was only when I even said the word ‘Denmark’ that she understood a very early punchline in the first act about a scene being set in Denmark Street (off Charing Cross Road in central London). This show is not unlike Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, insofar as it is best enjoyed, as I say, with some foreknowledge of Hamlet.
At a funeral, the congregation, comprised of the company, is asked to be seated, but without seats, they squat on stage instead, much to the delight and applause of the audience. Shakespeare too, in his plays, made references to the limitations of dramatizing events in the theatre without an inexhaustible budget for props and scenery. I liked the subtle nod to the Bard as the Company waited patiently for the liturgy to end, in order to resume infinitely more comfortable Standing positions. There is another nod to the Bard more than worth mentioning, too – some of the script is in iambic pentameter / blank verse. This does not render the dialogue impenetrable – the language used is straightforward and contemporary – but there are even rhyming couplets for aficionados of that sort of stage speak.
Johnny Hamlet (Cameron Jones) overhears some music from one of the buildings in Denmark Street, which to this day is a renowned hub of recording studios and music shops, wonders what the Music is, has the term ‘rock and roll’ explained to him, and then almost immediately launches into a full-blown song and dance. I found this somewhat implausible – going suddenly from not even knowing what rock music is to belting out rock numbers flawlessly just didn’t seem right. It is just as well that Jones can dance and sing so excellently.
This is not a jukebox musical. It is much more sophisticated than that, with use of original lyrics composed by Bob Eaton, rather than shoehorning existing tunes into the framework of the show. Not all of the references and punchlines are derived from or directly connected to Shakespeare’s Hamlet – there’s a particularly amusing moment where Johnny mishears Elvis Presley’s warbling ‘Bless my soul’ (from All Shook Up) as ‘Blossom arsehole’. While the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is out for revenge, here The Ghost (Fred Broom) has a softer agenda, and is only really seeking remembrance.
Cameron Jones is a young actor to watch out for. A likeable talent clearly on the ascendancy, his stage presence held the audience captive from beginning to end. The show’s programme claims his “professional career in theatre is still very much in its infancy”, having graduated only last summer. I really wouldn’t have known otherwise: to borrow a sporting phrase, he is a natural. Also of note are Daniel Healy in the role of Waltzer, evidently an accomplished actor-musician, and Lucy Wells as Ophelia, oozing with confidence and style, very different to Shakespeare’s character of that name.
I was able to sit back and enjoy this show, and at a personal level it’s five stars from me. Despite the above mentioned flaws in the narrative, it’s a feelgood show filled with humour, and for all the serious drama I see, there’s nothing quite like a show that raises hearty laughter. But really I must climb down from that, because there were certain other members of the audience who were nonplussed by the evening’s proceedings, being unfamiliar with Hamlet, and I feel it would be unfair not to recognise that.
In some musicals, particularly ones that include rock music, the music can be so loud it drowns out the vocals. The narrative of that show tune is then lost. Not so at Roll Over Beethoven. Every line is crystal clear. The balance between the band and the vocals is perfect. There’s a positive ending to the story too (though even I think it’s a step too far to reveal all). Suffice to say, “A toast to love and understanding” – yes, I’ll drink to that.
Review by Chris Omaweng
ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN
A new musical about revenge, romance and rock ‘n’ roll!
The Queen’s is thrilled to launch its autumn repertory season with the world premiere of Roll Over Beethoven, an explosive rock ‘n’ roll musical, opening on 21 August.
1956. Monochrome post-war England… but the jukebox is about to set the world alight! Young national serviceman Johnny Hamlet comes home for his father’s funeral to find his mother Gertie has been carrying on with Uncle Claud.
Haunted by his father’s ghost telling him he was murdered, does Johnny avenge his death? Or lose himself in music?
“To rock or not to rock?” That is the question!
Written by Bob Eaton, Roll Over Beethoven has been specially commissioned for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, and is loosely inspired by Hamlet. This is a celebrated tale with a funny, inventive twist and bursting with superb rock ‘n’ roll melodies – all played live on stage by our actor-musician ensemble.
Starring as Johnny is popular Queen’s company member Cameron Jones – recently nominated for an Off West End Award for his ultra-slick Narrator in our spring 2015 finale Hot Stuff.
Writer Bob Eaton has created over 20 plays and musicals, with highlights including the award-winning Lennon and Our Day Out – The Musical with Willy Russell. He recently directed the musical Soul Sister, based on the life of Tina Turner, which transferred to the West End, toured nationally and was nominated for Best New Musical in the Olivier Awards.
In Roll Over Beethoven, Bob fluidly blends a rhythm-driven soundtrack with sparkling blank verse – continuing the Queen’s tradition of infusing well-loved stories with new energy and fantastic song. Sensational musicianship, exuberant dance and evocative design complete the magic in this thrilling new musical!
Cast: Fred Broom, Gregory Clarke, Daniel Healy, Cameron Jones, Adam Langstaff, Sarah Mahony, Steven Markwick, Antony Reed, Tom Sowinski, Al Twist and Lucy Wells.
Matt Devitt directs, design is by Rodney Ford, musical direction by Ben Goddard, lighting design by Mark Dymock, sound design by Rick Clarke and choreography by Valentina Dolci.
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Roll Over Beethoven
Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch,
Friday 21 August – Saturday 12 September 2015