Theatre Review: We Will Rock You – Drama Queen, Or Bohemian Bombast

March 14, 2023

By BRUCE DENNILL

We Will Rock You / Directed by Nick Winston / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg

We Will Rock You is – for those who’ve skipped the memo for the last couple of decades – a musical built around the music of Queen, and relying on those timeless hits for its mass appeal. The writer of its script is not hugely less famous, being one of the creative minds behind TV series Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line (among much else, including successful novels and other television work, plays, musicals and stand-up comedy). But Ben Elton’s concept here is goofily glib and knowingly, gloriously cheesy, where Queen’s songs, even where they are no less silly (Fat Bottomed Girls is hardly Shakespeare), still have the punch now that they did on release, which in some cases is now half a century ago.

A futuristic yarn about a world in which music, art and creativity are outlawed until the emergence of the long-prophesied Dreamer – a character named Galileo Figaro, played by newcomer Stuart Brown) – threatens the status quo overseen by the despotic Killer Queen (Londiwe Dhlomo) is supported by more than just the soundtrack. Huge, brash, detailed sets – part physical structures and part animations and projections – are somehow topped for visual impact by Sarah Mercadé’s costumes, which run the gamut from ‘beginner pilot school’ to ‘Sex Pistol hobo chic’ via ‘Tron visits Adult World’. This all adds an archly ironic touch to proceedings, given that the incumbent rulers of the iPlanet (again, not so much with the subtlety) are entirely against using one’s imagination.

The story’s cues, and the action that stems from them, all come from the 25 Queen songs used in the piece, many of them in their entirety, with a couple cut short or excerpted for the sake of flow and time. The (happily) predictable enthusiasm of the audience for these tunes creates a scenario in which the fourth wall occasionally gets broken and the actors become rock stars and the audience a stadium crowd, with all the arm-waving and whooping that goes with it.

For all that the music is the entry point for all that follows, Queen are not an easy act to follow. The tight live band – somewhere on stage, but hidden from view – do a superb job of handling the instrumental part of the assignment, with guitarist Aldert Du Toit getting a chance, near the end of the show, to come and throw shapes atop a grand piano using an iconic Brian May Red Special.

Vocally, the musical makes perhaps higher demands – nobody expects anyone to match Freddie Mercury, but doing the songs justice is a must if the show is going to have maximum impact. Three performers stand out in that regard. Danelle Cronje as Oz absolutely kills a mostly-solo No-One But You in the single vocal highlight of the night. Tiaan Rautenbach makes his Buddy sweetly but powerfully comic, particularly in Act 2, and delivers a heartfelt, beautiful take on These Are The Days Of Our Lives. And Nicolette Fernandes, in the lead role of Scaramouche, does a superb triple-threat job all the way through, not least in having the most consistent accent on the stage. That aspect of the collective performance is … curious, with Afrikaans Cockney making a disturbing debut somewhere between Texan-ish drawls, fruity Englishness and, notably, a lekker Pretoria vibe, bru.

All of that said, the sheer scale of the production, with its Dayglo intensity and the indisputable pedigree of its soundtrack, make We Will Rock you a diverting escape from the ordered expectations of the work or school day.

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