Image description: A crowd of people on a stage stand in a triangle formation, with the ‘tip’ of the crowd culminating in a woman singing intensely, facing the audience, with her arms stretched out and to the side. The crowd wears rock-themed, ripped, highly-patterned clothing, and the lighting is dark blue.
By Paris Javid
The curtains open to roaming lights and a quick history recap that barrels ahead into the future. I sit three rows out, furtively taking notes. Australian Idol kills ‘real music’ before I am even born; in 2030, Mark McGowan becomes President of Western Australia. Fast forward to the year 2310; the iPlanet (formerly known as Earth) is ruled by a sexy evil video game character who escaped into reality. Not even Mark can save us now.
Clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, Ben Elton’s jukebox homage to the music of Queen strings together a catalogue of their biggest hits with a story that’s dreadfully drenched in boomer humour. At half-time, I go and buy another drink at a 400% mark-up.
In this out-of-touch old man’s vision of the future, everyone must think and dress the same. The kids speak in TXT lingo, and only have online friends. Real friends? Illegal. All live music is banned; possession of musical instruments is forbidden.
In the words of Killer Queen (Casey Donovan), the “half real, half pixel, all bad” menace responsible for this dystopian mess: the kids can never rock and roll. Her chief crony Khashoggi (Dean Misdale), who looks like a shinier Neo from The Matrix, nods along: The kids can never rock and roll.
…Unless? Enter ‘Galileo Figaro’ (Blake Williams), our rebellious protagonist with a habit of spontaneously coughing up lyric fragments, and his sassy sidekick and love interest ‘Scaramouche’ (Holly Denton), who is obviously not like other girls because she ties a flannel around her waist. They team up with a ragtag group of rebel ‘Bohemians’ to fight the evil mega-corporation Globalsoft and overthrow the Killer Queen, all the while navigating a predictable and pointless romance arc that’s been shoehorned into the story.
This show serves up music as the main course, with only a measly side of story, so to speak. Any semblance of plot all but disappears towards the end, as Elton tries to wrap up the story quickly so the cast can finally sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Although the plot may be weak and unoriginal, and the characters caricatures with little substance, these attempts at a cohesive storyline are merely a backdrop for the song and dance numbers.
Image description: A man and a woman stand on a stage in a tender embrace. They wear dark leather and denim clothing, and the woman wears blue eyeshadow. In the back is a projection of a kombi van, and the lighting is blue.
There’s a grand total of twenty-four Queen hits, each one somewhat awkwardly jammed into a different scene, even with lyrics modified to fit the narrative. Not to say that the performances are bad; it’s all very showy and entertaining, and the hidden live band gives a consistently outstanding performance. But between cheap jokes about manufactured pop, and glossed-up recitals which – with butchered lyrics and generic music-video choreography – strip all the original zest and meaning from the songs, We Will Rock You becomes the very thing it mocks.
Elton’s attempt at Orwellian satire is ambitious but unfruitful. Imagine a primary school play, ghost-written by a grumpy old teacher who reads those ‘kids these days’ comics in the paper and grumbles about the evils of technology. The script is riddled with stilted one-liners and unnecessary gender-based jokes, with every other line a ham-fisted pop culture reference — all said and done with a nod and a wink. Despite several updates since 2003, the humour remains archaic, and judging from the chorus of middle-aged laughter, perhaps better suited for an older audience.
The Perth show is an entirely Western Australian production featuring a diverse, talented cast and production team. The subtle Perth references are a nice touch — it’s comforting to know there’s still a green cactus in this dystopian future.
Image description: A crowd of performers, wearing rock-themed and highly-patterned clothing, pose on a stage. Some hold their fingers in the ‘sign of the horn’ symbol and have their tongues out, and some women are held up on the shoulders of men. The pose in front of a projection of street art and graffiti.
Donovan absolutely kills it on-stage as the Ursula-esque Killer Queen, surrounded by her harem of mesh and garter-clad minions. She dominates the stage with her powerful, soaring vocals — which, ironically, won her the Australian Idol in 2004 — and her disco-ball attire.
Williams and Denton also put out a great performance as the leading duo, despite having little depth of character to work with, and Williams especially nails the comically erratic musical tics of his character. They did a great job of belting out Queen songs one after another, but far from being perfect, they did sometimes fall back on lacklustre vocals, especially during Williams’ rendering of Freddie Mercury’s notes in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
It would be unfair for me to criticise Elton’s claim of ‘strong female representation’ when all the characters were equally one-dimensional. It was still disappointing watching Denton perform within the one-dimensional confines of her character, whose first appearance was singing ‘Somebody to Love’, and who was given very little beyond being the main man’s hot love interest (his ‘chick’). Elton doesn’t avoid gendered tropes either; when the duo joins the rebels, the girl is pressured into getting a ‘sexy rock ’n’ roll makeover’ while the guy gets thrown a leather jacket with a smile.
Am I being harsh and picky? Yes. I also don’t think it’s wise to go to shows conspiring to have a terrible time, like I did. Maybe best not to take notes either. You’ll probably have a grand old time singing, clapping, and stomping along to your favourite Queen songs — which is the real selling point of the show anyway.
The show has received its fair share of criticism over the years, which I don’t think Elton does a good job of defending. But despite its outdated humour and lack of oomph, this musical is definitely an — ideally tipsy, middle-aged or older— crowd pleaser.
Final verdict: Cheesy, palatable, and at times heart-touching, but I wouldn’t call it awe-inspiring. I’m sure a lot of Queen fans will love this even if I didn’t.
Three (video killed the radio) stars out of five.
We Will Rock You will be performing at Crown Theatre until November 22nd.
Paris Javid is trying her best, pinky promise.
Images courtesy of We Will Rock You