WE Will Rock You is “intriguing, challenging, achingly romantic, brutally cynical and at once both sad and hilarious,” says the futuristic Queen “rock theatrical’s” writer-director, Ben Elton.
It is also probably the daftest musical you will ever see. Even dafter on reacquaintance than when the flamboyant show visited Leeds Grand Theatre in 2011, the year it won the Most Popular Show prize at the Olivier Awards.
Thirty years since Freddie Mercury passed away at 45 – “too beautiful, too wild,” as Elton puts in his script – Queen still rule. On press night, there was not a spare seat to be had, setting the box-office pattern for the busy week ahead.
For its 20th anniversary touring production, Elton is back at the helm as director, adding changes and updates here and there to a plot that has gone from “science fiction to science fact” and is “more relevant than ever”, in the judgement of Queen guitarist Brian May.
A pre-show Elton recorded plea to “live in the freakin’ moment” (by putting away mobile phones) and two references to Covid go down particularly well, while the renaming of Planet Earth has moved on from Planet Mall to iPlanet in the age of Internet Gaga.
Astutely, musical advisor May had suggested: “The show needs to work in a theatrical context and retain the rock, while also incorporating the spectacle, uniqueness and humour embodied by Queen.”
This prompted Elton to consider how “legendary rock music should have a legendary context” as he riffed on tales from King Arthur to The Terminator: “heroic myths in which brave individuals take on the vast monolithic force of evil systems”.
Elton’s nutty narrative is duly set in a distant, dystopian, globalised future where iPlanet’s inhabitants dress and think identically and exist in a brain-dead cyberspace haze, like the Gaga High School pupils encouraged to spend day after day on the online drip-feed.
Rock music is banned, prompting a rebellious cluster, the tartan and leather-clad Bohemians, to fight against the all-powerful Global Soft company, its pantomime-baddie boss, the Killer Queen (Jenny O’Leary) and her henchman, Khashoggi (Adam Strong), the Malvolio party-pooper of the piece.
Two school outsiders, boy dreamer Galileo Figaro (Ian McKintosh) and bad-ass girl Scaramouche (Elena Skye), want to break free from all this bleak conformity, to join the Bohemian cause to restore freedom of expression and individuality (except for the audience, who are asked to refrain from singing except when instructed).
We Will Rock You builds that Orwellian story around a framework of readymade hits, like the Madness musical vehicle, Our House. In other words, it applies a back-to-front process, songs first, story second, as satirical humorist Elton sticks his tongue firmly in Queen’s already saucy cheek.
Combining lampoon and harpoon, he revels in a hoary plotline that sends up Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Sir Cliff Richard, Meat Loaf and corporate control of pop, throws in a love story and sexual innuendo, while finding endless routes/excuses to sing another of those Queen monoliths: 24 in total.
May’s fellow musical advisor, Queen drummer Roger Taylor, defines the musical as being silly, funny but making “quite a lot of serious points”. True, but Elton’s show rightly refuses to take itself seriously when making those points.
His dialogue is deliberately as clunky as a B-movie script and his knowing, debunking humour, full of in-jokes and Queen and rock-history references bounces off his characters, just as it does in Blackadder, The Young Ones and Upstart Crow.
Tim Blazdell’s set design and Stufish Entertainment Architects & Willie Williams’s video production bring a state-of the-art pizzazz to the Queen hit parade, while also evoking the spirit of Flash Gordon and Return To The Forbidden Planet, aided by Kentaur’s costume and wig designs.
Zachary Flis’s band, up on the mezzanine level, relish the mock-operatic drama and sheer diversity of the Queen songbook, sung spectacularly by Elton’s company of colourful characters, as much in the tradition of Meat Loaf as Mercury.
No-one is afraid to throw the kitchen sink into shamelessly over-the-top performances, especially O’Leary’s belting Killer Queen and David Michael Johnson’s Brit, or to be hammy in the case of Strong’s Khashoggi.
Michael McKell’s motor-biking dude, Cliff, is the scene stealer; McIntosh’s Freddie and the dreamer combination of gorgeous voice and naivety are a joy throughout and Skye’s drop-dead goth attitude as Scaramouche is a killer.
Ultimately, silly and funny as it may be, We Will Rock You is all about those oh-so familiar songs being brought to fresh life by myriad knock-out voices, Far better to be done this way than in yet another tribute show.
P.S. Make sure to stay for the end, not the false end, to experience the fandango of a finale.
To join the ticket rush: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York