When I first heard of "the Queen musical", I envisioned something with drama, magic and passion that tied together some of their greatest songs in, perhaps, an allegorical story of the life and death of its legendary lead singer. This production is none of those things.
Set in a dystopian world, “the time is the future” says the projected text in a Stars-Wars-like introduction-scroll. All individual creativity is banned on Earth, now called “iPlanet”, and the creation of new songs is forbidden. It is ruled by the evil “Killer Queen” (played by the Aretha Franklin-like Brenda Edwards) who wishes to hunt down any rogue “Bohemians” and their fabled saviour “Galileo Figaro” (Noel Sullivan). Killer Queen wants the world to be full of “Ga Ga Girls” who are vacant technology consumers that she can control. Galileo spurts out song lyrics he dreamt about like Bumblebee from Transformers and soon becomes acquainted with a rebellious girl he calls “Scaramouche” (confidently played in this performance by understudy Lauren Varnham). You can probably see where this is going. Throw in a prophecy about finding an “axe” in “living rock” and that sums up the depth and detail of the story.
So, it’s a pantomime. There are the lovers, the big bad witch, the evil henchman in “Khashoggi” (Alisdair Harvey), the Buttons-like clown that is the misnomered “Britney Spears” (Wayne Robinson) and the prologue character in “Pop” (Kevin Kennedy). Ben Elton is proudly credited as the author of this script, which is frankly awful. With laboured jokes about female pubic hair (“Scaramouche? Sounds like scary bush”) and the odd bit of PG-13 language, the script can’t have taken more than half an hour to pen. Elton is clearly a technophobe and mocks the social media generation with the kind of witty terminology you’d expect from a pensioner learning to send emails. The through-line of a panto is rarely something that stands up to scrutiny, but this plot is beyond clunky and desperately tries to link songs together. When the Killer Queen is finally vanquished, it happens with such little explanation that I felt Elton must have been as bored by the story at this point as I was and had the good grace to finally get on with the music.
The songs in isolation are a tribute to the originals, but in this context seem to jar. Sullivan takes the lead role and sings many of the classic tracks with a strong and impressive pop voice. You should be aware for the benefit of some of the “jokes” that Sullivan was in manufactured pop-band Hear’say. However, in a world where rock is dead because of the scourge of manufactured pop, it seems odd for him to be the saviour of the genre. It’s less Freddie Mercury and more Glee. I found a lot of the songs, reworded to fit the scenes, lost any of their original meaning. After somehow escaping a “laser-prison”, the lovers give fleeting consideration to their being caught again and maybe killed but, if you’re in love, “Who Wants to live forever?” The original was a beautifully painful and moving song as Mercury dealt with his own mortality. Here, it is rendered cheap and meaningless. It also doesn’t help that the Sullivan’s American accent makes him sound like a puppet from Avenue Q.
Although the show contains more ham and cheese than a croque-monsieur, I have to be fair to the cast in that what they do is good. The ensemble work well together and some of the bigger scenes with the Bohemians, and choreography from Arlene Phillips, are a lot of fun. Wayne Robinson is a stand-out performance as the feisty Jamaican-voiced rebel Brit. His martial-arts-inspired moves are, like his physique, impressive, and he knows how to work a crowd comically. The singing is generally excellent and even Coronation Street star Kevin Kennedy surprises as he sings a very respectable version of "These Are The Days Of Our Lives".
Like any good rock concert, this show boasts a wealth of impressive stage effects with lifts and rotating platforms. I can’t help feeling that, for want of a better script, it should have stayed as a concert. The costumes, music, voices, set and lighting are worth experiencing and it does continue to fill the Dominion Theatre with tourists and teenagers who were all on their feet by the curtain call. As much as they enjoyed it, I felt I could have left at the interval, listened to Queen on my iPod and been far better off. Perhaps I’ve become one of the GaGa’s, but I found it interesting that "The Show Must Go On" didn’t feature...