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7th September 2022

Review: We Will Rock You

Rebecca Rommen reviews We Will Rock You (Ben Elton’s jukebox musical, based on the songs of Queen, which stars Michael McKell) which is at the Palace Theatre for the last week of its UK tour
Review: We Will Rock You
The Company. Photo: Johan Persson.

We celebrated what would’ve been Freddie Mercury’s 76th birthday by welcoming We Will Rock You (WWRY) back to Manchester. The jukebox musical, featuring Queen’s greatest hits, is currently in the final week of its 20th anniversary UK tour.

Jay and I attended as Queen fans first and critics second, having both seen Queen + Adam Lambert live in concert. We were sceptical but intrigued about the premise and managed our expectations accordingly. Basing a dystopian musical around a timeless rock band’s discography seemed chancy. The storyline, penned by Ben Elton (who has been interviewed by The Mancunion), could have worked out if fleshed out in an Orwellian novel or Black Mirror episode, but it felt half-baked as a musical.

WWRY, set 300 years in the future, tells the story of a ragtag group, aptly called Bohemians, and their defiance against an oppressive regime/corporation. The head of the regime/corporation is Killer Queen, who works tirelessly with her Chief of Police, Khashoggi, to stamp out resistance and individualism. (Yes, the characters’ names are all derived from Queen lyrics).

Galileo Figaro and his feisty love interest, Scaramouche, rebel against the regime/corporation with their fellow Bohemians, searching for the lost art of rock ‘n’ roll. The only music available in this new world is entirely computer-generated. I can see how this concept would appeal to some viewers with its implicit criticisms of corporatisation and electronic music.

The script has been tweaked since its 2002 debut, with some nods to Covid worked into the dialogue. The first mention of Covid was a success – Galileo and Scaramouche agree to “use protection” and proceed to put on face masks before making out. This attempt landed with the audience. The next time Covid was mentioned felt like overkill – and then it was mentioned again, to no laughter at all.

Paying homage to an icon like Freddie Mercury is a gamble. Finding an ensemble cast that can accommodate Mercury’s unparalleled vocal range (famously spanning bass low F to soprano high F) is no mean feat. Jay and I had both felt the same internal conflict watching Adam Lambert perform alongside the greats, as his talent is up to par and his stage presence exceptional, but it’s jarring watching someone embody the late Freddie. Even Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning portrayal in Bohemian Rhapsody left fans conflicted.

Admittedly, some WWRY cast members exceeded expectations and delivered those notes with pizazz – special mention goes to Elena Skye, who plays leading lady Scaramouche.

Michael McKell (who The Mancunion interviewed ahead of the show) played Cliff, and he was certainly a fan favourite. Olivier nominee Ian McIntosh was off. Instead, his alternate, Damien Walsh, played the lead role of Galileo, whilst Edward Leigh covered for David Michael Johnson (who has been reprising his role of Brit).

Notable moments included an oppressive headmistress who’s the spitting image of Jessie J, garish wigs, and soulless “Gaga girls” who look eerily like the Fembots in Austin Powers.

The musical was initially met with scathing reviews twenty years ago but has since asserted itself as an audience favourite. Perhaps my cynicism will subside in another twenty years. While the show’s not for everyone, it’s a fun night out, especially if you know Queen’s songs front-to-back.

My main conclusion (to counteract my criticisms) is that I am not the target audience for this show. The majority of my fellow Queen fans are from a different generation, and the sense of humour seemed to appeal to them. Jay and I were among the youngest in the audience, and the baby boomers present punctuated the acts with whoops, signalling that, yes, this was the Queen tribute they had paid to see.

We Will Rock You plays at Palace Theatre Manchester from 5th-10th September – the final stop of its UK tour.

Check out our previous review of We Will Rock You, our review of Queen + Adam Lambert’s The Rhapsody Tour, and our review of (and interview with) Ben Elton.

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