It may not be the most dramatic or spectacular of musicals, but I must admit that I have always had a soft spot for School of Rock. I have been fond of the story of Dewey Finn, the down-on-his luck wannabe rocker who finds himself impersonating a substitute teacher, and of the children he leads to unlikely glory at the local Battle of the Bands ever since I first watched the film starring Jack Black, and so it was a pleasure to find them again in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End/Broadway take, complete with new songs (14 of them!) as well as the old favourites from the film.
It is a show that can be very rightly marketed as entertainment for the whole family, as it is fast-paced, snappy, and loud enough to keep the youngest members of the audience engaged while also delivering humorous moments for the appreciation of an adult public; but scratch the happy-go-lucky surface and you will find that this show does, in fact, a remarkable amount of emotional heavy lifting. It engages with a number of complex themes which are likely to hit close to home for a broad range of people, especially when we look to the experiences of the child characters: from the difficult experience of having to find a way to socialise and make friends while being shy or feeling different from the others, to the struggle of matching the expectations of parents who might not share the same goals and priorities as their children, to the anxiety of being ‘uncool’ and out of place, those feel like nothing short of tragedies when you’re a child and, surely, are remembered with more than a shudder when they’re in the past. How refreshing, then, to have a story that offers as a solution not a withdrawal into conformity, but a joyous embracing of transgression; that does not go for the classic glow-up plot in which the odd one out learns to be cool, but clearly states that odd and cool can very well go and in hand. There is something along the same lines for the adults, too: an equally satisfying message reminding us all that we do not need to surrender our passions to the passing of time, that we can still embrace and cultivate them even if they go nowhere – perhaps the most subversive element of the story being that the titular School of Rock do not, in the end, win the competition, and it doesn’t matter: it is the joy of what they have achieved that is the important part.
The cast is running with it and having a lot of fun, too, which contributes to the constantly high energy of the performance. Jake Sharp acquits himself well in the role of Dewey, replicating with impressive accuracy Jack Black’s mannerisms and vocal flourishes while also adding a good number of touches that are entirely his own; Rebecca Lock is delightfully tongue-in-cheek and deeply relatable as Rosalie Mullins (the way the musical expands on this character is one of the most interesting things that it does in comparison with the screen version of the story), and Matthew Roland as Ned Schneebly is an easy audience favourite. The main burden of the performance, though, the one that can make it or break it, is carried by the children: and they exceed all expectations, both in their acting delivery and with their respective instruments (which they actually play!) Not only are their performance well-rounded and convincing, genuinely emotional when required and with excellent comedic timing elsewhere, but there is an understanding of the emotional nuances of each story arc that is far from obvious with actors this young.
School of Rock is, ultimately, light entertainment, and does not claim to be anything else; but it is proof of how good light entertainment can be when it is cleverly conceived and expertly delivered. It’s a great night out, flowing hard and fast like a musical-slash-rock opera is supposed to; it will certainly entertain, most likely amuse, and quite possibly even make you think. Images: Tristram Kenton.