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Review: School of Rock, New Theatre Oxford

Gold star or time for detention? See for yourself if Andrew Lloyd Webber's touring production makes the grade with the Muddy verdict on the press night.

I do love a bit of Christmas panto (just as well in my job), but I’ve been surprised how many people I know can’t stand the double entendres, rhyming couplets and synthetic ruffles at every turn. I mean, what’s wrong with you?! Anyway, if you’re in ‘avoid panto at all costs’ camp, New Theatre’s touring School of Rock production might just rehabilitate you in the eyes of your baleful children.

Part of the first national tour of the hit London musical, it opened earlier this week and plays until 1 January, therefore acting as New Theatre’s Christmas production. The musical brainchild of Andrew Lloyd Webber with Julian ‘Downton Abbey’ Fellowes creating the book based on Jack Black’s 2004 movie of the same name, the story focuses on Dewey Finn, a disheveled, deluded, would-be rock star ejected from his own band who takes a job at a posh private school in a case of mistaken identity (well, the school is mistaken, Dewey has selfishly taken his flatmate’s dream job without him knowing).

Hopeless at all aspects of teaching and immature at every level, he finally connects with his class by teaching them about rock music, eventually taking the class band (band name: ‘School of Rock’) to the local Battle of the Bands, realising his own worth, connecting with the kids, and in the process helping the stuffy, ambitious parents see their children for the little loves they really are.

In other words, it’s a plot so daft it wouldn’t even make US daytime telly, but honestly who cares? School of Rock zips along with energy and warmth, with 14 original songs plus all the music from the movie, and in the lead role Jake Sharp channels Jack Black’s stock man-child angst and off-centre charm, blasting out his vocals, going all out for physical humour and connecting with the audience (yes, you will be clapping in the second half).

Taken at the show – hey copyrighters, lay off, we were given permission!

But rather like Matilda, it’s the children who are centre stage in this show, taking on roles that are bewilderingly ambitious, and playing instruments live on stage (I hadn’t realised that at the time – that’s pretty amazing, some of them are so small it’s a wonder they can hold their instruments) and singing solos – listen out for Jasmine Djazel’s Tomika, and her effortless version of Amazing Grace.

Rebecca Lock as headmistress Rosalie Mullins was excellent, believable as her character threw off the stiff facade of the private school headmistress and showed some vulnerability. Her pure, operatic voice managed the top C of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria with ease but she sounded just as comfortable singing Steve Nicks.

The stand out song was Stick It To The Man, partly because I enjoyed the choreography so much – the way kids jump in a playground, two feet together, travelling across the floor, was incorporated in a way that felt playful but also had the intent at the heart of the song of ‘sticking it’ to authority. Very clever.

The view from my seat in the stalls

I took my 12 year old – a much harsher critic than me. He’s only ever given three things a ’10’ in his life, the raving snob – The Langley Hotel, Stoke Park, and End Game. Sorry School of Rock, you didn’t get a 10 (impossible – he deducts two points automatically for musicals, not even kidding!), but even he pronounced “it’s really good”.

There you have it, the oracle has spoken.

School of Rock at the New Theatre Oxford, until 1 Jan.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Families. It lacks the emotional force of Matilda, but for children this is probably the more accessible, laugh-out-loud choice.

Not for: Well it’s an obvious point but if you really hate rock, you need to give it a swerve – it’ll be long night.

School of Rock. Tickets from £13. 24-26 George St, Oxford OX1 2AG.

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