It’s not going to make anyone’s list of the top 10 greatest stage musicals of all time, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock, with a book by the ubiquitous Julian Fellowes and lyrics by Glenn Slater, is a jubilant and infectious crowd-pleaser whose energy will take your breath away.
Based on the 2003 film by Richard Linklater, it’s the feel-good story of a slobby, paunchy hygienically challenged guitarist called Dewey who wants nothing more out of life than to belong to a rock band. Broke, uncouth and totally unscrupulous, he intercepts a telephone call intended for his nerdy school-teacher flatmate Ned (Oliver Jackson) in which he fraudulently accepts a teaching job at a prestigious children’s school called Horace Green. Undaunted by his total lack of qualifications but heartened by the fact that the 13 children in his class can play classical music, he persuades the kids to give rock 'n roll a try – a decision that ultimately transforms their lives.
Simple to the point of simple-minded, and a tad corny, it’s also effective and affecting. For the show to work, however, it makes a couple of king-sized demands. The role of Dewey is a killer in terms of its sheer physicality. He’s hardly ever off the stage. He has to sing, dance, play the guitar and, quite literally, fling himself into every one of his scenes. Off hand I can think of no other role in a musical more physically demanding than Dewey Finn.
Jack Black played him in the film. The character’s West End stage incarnation is in the capable hands, feet, torso and fingertips of David Fynn, whose exhaustive and exhausting performance is, to put it mildly, a tour de force. How on earth is he going to keep up the energy level eight times a week?
The other preposterous demand the show makes is on the 13 kids (aged between 10 and 13) with whom Dewey shares the stage for most of the time. They too have to sing, dance and play musical instruments. And it doesn’t end there. They have to act as well – all in American accents! It’s a massive ask to which they brilliantly respond, expressing both their individuality and their musical skills.
There’s an unlikely romantic sub-plot of sorts involving Dewey and Rosalie (Florence Andrews), the school’s headmistress who, after a single beer, morphs from a prim spinster into a swinger with a passion for the songs of Stevie Nicks. There’s even an obligatory villain in the shape of Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Preeya Kalidas), who hates Dewey and does her worst to expose him as a fraud.
Fellowes’ book sticks quite closely to Mike White’s original screenplay, my favourite line being Dewey’s vindication to his pupils’ concerned parents: “I’ve been touched by your kids and I’m pretty sure I’ve touched them.”
Lloyd Webber’s score, uncharacteristically free of the sweeping melodies that usually earworm their way into your memory, has an infectious buoyancy, the catchiest number being "Stick It to the Man," which Dewey and the kids turn into a deserved show-stopper. Slater’s lyrics are nifty and humorous. Joann M Hunter’s choreography bounces a great deal. And the pacey direction by Laurence Connor conjures an audience-pleasing vitality that brought the packed house to its feet, whooping with unbridled pleasure. It’s a hit. Simple as that.