School of Rock, New London Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Richard Linklater’s 2003 film School of Rock remains one of the director’s most mainstream works. Telling the story of a feckless loser who pretends to be a supply teacher and ends up coaching a class of prep school kids into becoming a rock band, Linklater’s film benefited from a great script by Mike White, a barnstorming central performance by Jack Black and a collection of child performers who were entertaining and endearing without being too sickly.

And it is safe to say that it is the same combination of elements that makes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage adaptation work so well. Black’s role as Dewey Finn, the slacker who impersonates his teacher roommate, is taken here by David Fynn in a performance which echoes Black’s wide-eyed ebullience without ever feeling like an impression.

Fynn has the same sense of fearlessness and physicality, the same ability to make what is ostensibly a heinous character feel like a hero worth rooting for. And while Julian Fellowes takes credit for the musical’s book, the play’s structure, dialogue and best punchlines all come direct from White’s screenplay (and Black’s on-camera improvisations).

Of course there are additions, most notably in Lloyd Webber’s music. As a composer who has infused rock music into musicals covering everything from Biblical epics to political scandal and Gothic romance, this is a genre of music in which he can excel.

And so it is here, with his knack for a serviceable melody providing an effervescent vehicle for Glenn Slater’s lyrics, which seamlessly extend the humour of White’s dialogue and Fellowes’ book.

And while Lloyd Webber’s habit of reusing the same melodies numerous times in various guises is still in evidence, there are enough musical elements brought in from the original film – most notably the title song ‘School of Rock’ (written by White and Black, a credit which seems to be missing from the programme), which showcases the children’s musical abilities – to ensure that the musical never feels overburdened by leitmotif, as several Lloyd Webber productions are prone to do.

The children themselves, of which there are three teams, make the show work as a family spectacle. Just as in the film, the young performers are called upon to play their own instruments – and the incongruity of such young performers rocking out is both funny and touching, as the uptight class finds themselves finding their true voices in the face of parents who have mapped out their children’s lives.

On the night Musical Theatre Review was in attendance, Lois Jenkins’ bass-playing Katie and Jude Harper-Wrobel’s drummer Freddy stood out.

Joann M Hunter’s choreography retains the loose, impetuous nature that suits rock music, feeling simple and genuine. Much of it is characterised by children jumping up and down on the spot, particularly in the show’s best original number, ‘Stick It to the Man’ – but it can’t be denied that such pogoing is a great fit.

Structurally, Laurence Connor’s production manages to plot out its lead character’s trajectory – from horrible loser, to exploitative fraud, through a redemption awarded by helping others find the best in themselves – on a path that is both loyal to the film and almost textbook book musical fodder.

As a result, nobody is ever going to leave the New London feeling that they’ve witnessed a step change in the history of musical theatre – but they will leave joyously, humming some of Lloyd Webber’s best tunes in a long while, feeling better about life. And that, as Dewey Finn might say, is what rock is about.