Swindon Link's Jessica Durston was invited to attend a performance of School of Rock at Oxford's New Theatre.
It’s confirmed – you really can’t stop the School of Rock.
When asked how to sum up my experience of the musical, two words instantly come to mind.
The collaborative efforts of Julian Fellowes, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater, and Laurence Connor make for an effervescent appreciation – a love letter if you will - to Rock, and music’s ability to free people from the various shackles of daily life, including those provided by ‘The Man.’
The story follows Dewey Finn, a failed, wannabe rock star who decides to earn money by posing as a substitute teacher at a prestigious preparatory school. There he turns a class of straight-A students into an impressive rock band outfit. While teaching these young minds the true meaning of rock, Dewey falls for the school’s controlling, yet alluring headmistress, helping her rediscover her wild-child roots.
Although laugh-a-minute and light-hearted, this comedic drama isn’t afraid to touch upon bigger underlying issues. The musical promotes notions of autonomy, personal freedom, and the idea of not having to live up to other people’s expectations.
Jake Sharp plays Dewey, whom Jack Black previously made infamous with his portrayal in the 2003 film of the same title. Any negative preconceptions are removed by Sharp, as his performance feels more like a homage to his Hollywood predecessor, with his gentle use of what I can only refer to as ‘Jack Blackisms’, his seemingly ceaseless energy, and believable American accent.
Sharp seemed right at home amongst his child co-stars, maintaining their high energy levels and doing ‘big kids’ everywhere proud. Sharp, as Dewey, figuratively leads the students of Horace Green in a ritual poking of the authority figures within their lives.
The talented young actors range from ages nine to thirteen and perform well above expectations. The leading youngsters who comprise the School of Rock band showcase their ability to act, sing, dance, and play instruments (sometimes simultaneously).
There are three sets of 12 prodigious children that are performing the dates of the UK and Ireland tour. Each show has child musicians playing the electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, and drums. Seeing the young people emerge with their huge instruments for the first time seems laughable - what with the size comparison to their small frames – but all thoughts of snickering are firmly removed when they begin to play. It is undeniably clear that the young actors are having the times of their lives, and as an audience member, you cannot help but get swept up in the furore.
If the instruments, dance routines, memorising of lines and lyrics were not enough to contend with, the young cast members were also tasked with perfecting their American accents which I believe held up well amongst their more experienced adult peers.
A vocal stand-out was 11-year-old Jasmine Djazel, playing the shy and endearing Tomika, who eventually becomes brave enough to find her voice.
Rebecca Lock, who plays headmistress Rosalie Mullins, also showcased her incredible vocal range, switching from operatic performances to rock and pop numbers at the drop of a guitar pick. Matthew Rowland as Ned Schneebly and Nadia Violet Johnson as Patty Di Marco were equally impressive and (like the remainder of the adult cast members) made playing multiple roles and changing costumes numerous times, look effortless.
Additionally, the costume and set design from Anna Louizos was inspired, and allowed for seamless transitions, so as an audience member, you remained immersed in the story. It was always clear where the scene was taking place from key backdrop panels that would slide backwards, forwards, up and down and any which way that was required.
The set design for the scenes that took place at the Battle of the Bands created the illusion that you were part of a real rock concert outside of the musical itself. Jake Sharp and his fantastic young musicians were a key part of constructing this immersion, of course. Note to future attendees, if you do not enjoy theatrical smoke and fog – do not sit front row, as you will find yourself surrounded in Purple Haze (I’ll take a bow for that one later)!
Furthermore, JoAnn M Hunter’s brilliant choreography was executed seamlessly by all the cast members. There were plenty of knee slides, spins, lots of headbanging and oodles of guitar showmanship and amp scaling.
Those who have at one point or another found themselves holed up in their bedroom, singing into a hairbrush or leaping from the bed, guitar hero-style (which if we’re honest with ourselves, is all of us) can live vicariously through the brilliant cast members during every number.
Moreover, I had the pleasure of seeing this rock n roll masterpiece on its gala night. The venue was decorated with a peppering of banners displaying the names and images of rock legends such as Hendrix, Springsteen, and Prince, ensuring audience members could not forget the very reasons, motivations, and inspirations behind the night’s enthralling entertainment. The theatre’s ushers were also dressed accordingly with ties round their heads, and their school uniform garb. These were nice additional touches.
School of Rock really does have something for everyone. Adult jokes and family friendly content are woven together well throughout. I would recommend the musical for anyone looking to enjoy a few hours of unabashed fun with catchy songs and a feel-good storyline.