Julian Eaves reviews Knights Of The Rose now playing at London’s Arts Theatre.
Knights of the Rose
5th July 2018
The most important thing you will take away from this show is experiencing a superb West End team of performers – and it’s a good sized company of 13, of whom three are actor-musicians supporting a great rock band of four – knocking out 26 terrific interpretations of some of the best pop music of the 80s and 90s. There are about 100 minutes of musical performance here, comprising memorable renditions of truly great hits, and it is a sheer joy to be in the close company – the Arts is a famously intimate venue – of such a handsome and musically appealing crowd of young people giving their all. Director-choreographer Racky Plews does everything possible to show off these adorable actors to their best advantage, and Tim Deiling lights them with sumptuous scale, tricking the eye into believing the Arts is a big West End stage, offering a spectacular epic entertainment (which is sort of what the show is trying to be, I think).
The stage and costume design by Diego Pitarch is more problematic, with large trucks carrying huge box segments that move around into impressive configurations, but which leave precious little space – especially when there are lots of bodies on stage – for Plews to exercise her choreographic genius: those coming to this show expecting to see the same dash and verve that energised and elevated her European premier staging of ‘American Idiot‘ (which played here not so long ago) will be disappointed. Matters are further troubled by a disastrous miscalculation – one of many made by the producers of this show – in the shoddy cheapness of the costume budget, which is frankly an insult to the quality of the performers on stage and an utterly false economy, for which the designer most assuredly cannot be held to account. The actors fight back against this with impressive professionalism, and pour their hearts into giving sublime performances of the terrific repertoire of songs. If only one could suspect the producers of having the same theatrical guts.
After a promising start, with an agreeable narration and opening ‘Blaze of Glory’ getting the ball rolling, we then discover the true Achilles Heel of this work: the script. The programme has already alerted us to the ‘scrapbook’ style of ‘writing’: it lists a long, long collection of references to other works, a kind of ‘Your Hundred Favourite Quotes From Eng Lit’, and put me in mind – far too powerfully – of the syllabus of the English Literature course at Oxford. My sources tell me that I am not far off in my suspicions: the authoress of this ‘text’, Jennifer Marsden, they tell me, is keen to share with the public her love of the great canon of English Literature. Fair enough, but is a rock’n’roll back catalogue musical really the best vehicle to communicate that love? And, more to the point, why should we pay attention to that legacy at all: is there a point here, an argument? If she has one, Marsden does not articulate it. We get merely a string of ‘quotes’ from this, that and the other – far superior – texts, and are left increasingly wondering if she has anything whatsoever of her own to say. Things are not made any better by her insistence that it is all delivered ‘straight’, without a shred of humour or any redeeming lightness of touch, in the actors’ best RADA-style British actor voices – while they sing their numbers in the appropriate Americanised twang of the pop industry: I simply cannot credit the director as being behind such a decision, it has to be a stipulation of the writer and producers, doesn’t it? How Marsden imagines that this will help bring the disparate elements of her concoction closer together is anybody’s guess. Let us also bear in mind that (as I understand it) Marsden has had years to work on this show, giving her plenty of time to identify and excise any problems with the book. Again, according to my sources, in that process, she has worked alongside some very reputable people, and I find it hard to believe that none of them has ever raised such difficulties with her before.
If there is a paucity of intention (and an unwillingness to correct errors) behind this project, there is clearly plenty – well, a fair amount – of money. Hiring a West End theatre is not cheap, and filling it with this many artists is pricey, especially when they have a run of many weeks ahead of them. Marsden’s background as a lucratively successful barrister, in collaboration with her equally if not more successful spouse, have provided the all-important moula to make the show happen. Well done to them! As newcomers to producing, it is not surprising that they make mistakes in knowing where and how to spend that money; maybe they could have done themselves – and us – a few favours and taken on a more modest and less risky property, in order to learn, as I’m sure they had had to do in their other careers, gradually and slowly and carefully. More germanely, they might make themselves more open to listen to warning voices before committing such resources to a physical production. But what’s done is done. They have engaged a terrific director, who has chosen a sublime line up and creative team, hoping that this would be enough to ensure success. And the performers throw everything they’ve got into getting the most out of what they have to work with.
Chris Cowley (Sir Palomon) is a gorgeous talent with a delicious voice and smashingly appealing stage presence. Katie Birthill (Princess Hannah) has worked with him before – as indeed have many here, and they spark off each other beautifully: she sings with power, clarity and a perfect idiomatic control of the material. Matt Thorpe (Sir Horatio) is robust and resonant, and a familiar face here from Plews’ own magisterial ‘American Idiot’, and his presence also strongly reminds us of what a stonking success that show was; he really shows how an actor can ‘see through’ the shallowness of a script to find a deeper and more involving story to tell, and his performance communicates that in a way that the actual words he is given to utter fail to attain. Oliver Saville (Sir Hugo) has strength and charisma, and Rebecca Bainbridge (Queen Matilda/Bess) is passionate and noble. Rebekah Lowings (Lady Isabel) is another great up-and-coming talent, as is the amiable Ruben Van Keer (John). We also get a dramatically convincing Adam Pearce (King Aethelstan/Francis), Andy Moss (as the tragic Prince Gawain), the always alive and involving Bleu Woodward (Emily) and the powerful ensemble players of Ian Gareth-Jones, Kelly Hampson and Tom Bales. It’s a marvelous company.
The musical direction comes from the hugely experienced and sensitive Mark Crossland, who is a peerless interpreter of the vocal arrangements, orchestrations and additional music of the wonderful Adam Langston, their sounds given fulsome shape by Chris Whybrow’s confident and shrewd sound design. You will never forget the moments of wonder they present: in particular, the effect of the men’s voices singing together in choral numbers is ravishing, as is the fantastically realised staging of the women in ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, where they seem to float in nothingness, merging with each other, and sliding in and out of our consciousness like visions in a dream. Even in a show which is dramaturgically over-addicted to power ballads (the second act offers half a dozen of them in a terrifying row!), it is moments like this which remind you just what a strong show this could be. Yet, time and time again, the bathetic feebleness of the script totally ruins the cumulative effect of the great songs. We find ourselves laughing ‘at’ the show, and the absurd incompetence of the script, and not with it: it takes itself far too seriously for that to happen.
In the short-term, if the script cannot be performed with any alleviating sense of humour, then the best solution would be to jettison it completely: the show would be none the worse for it, and all the better. Freed from such an encumbrance, the show might then stand a proper chance of finding an appreciative audience. And everyone might then pay proper attention to the show’s abundant strengths without being distracted by the fatal weaknesses that do so much to undermine and belittle the superb contributions of so many great talents.