Falling into the roses and coming out smelling of shit

Guest Review by Ollie Cole

Journalist • Broadcaster • Producer • Photographer

What happens when you cross a plot that’s thinner than Donald Trump’s hairline with a NOW album of rock ballads? Knights of the Rose, apparently. Describing itself as a classic rock musical ‘of Shakespearean proportions’, the song list of this new jukebox musical prompted the Daily Express to ask, “is this the most epic rock musical ever?” It is not.

Firstly there’s some housekeeping to be done before we even get into the production’s many confused, cliche, and cringeworthy parts. This is a 2018 West End premiere of a new musical, and the whole cast is white and there’s just not an argument out there that could justify it. The medieval-themed tale also consists of the men constantly talking about swords and battles and honour, while the women sit at home with nothing to do except be hopelessly devoted to their men. From the outset this show isn’t just regressive, it’s pointless.

Both of these things may have been more glaring and troublesome had Knights of the Rose actually contained any depth, with a book that feels it would easily fit onto a side or two of A4 if you cut out the ‘thees, thines and thous”. It’s the tale of two love triangles; one seeing the princess loving a knight but another knight wanting to kill him to get the princess, and the other seeing a knight falling in love with the princess’ friend, then ending up with her when her ‘true love’ dies in battle (the friend gets over that one remarkably quickly). Yes, quite, yawn.

The writing is mostly made up of poetic and literary references from Shakespeare, Keats, Chaucer and others. These are delivered in a way that used to send you to sleep in a GCSE English lesson, so why anybody thought it would make for an interesting rock musical I’m unsure.

Around these cliche phrases and monologues are some of the most well-known rock anthems and ballads of our time, from Bon Jovi to Bonnie Tyler. Though these are sung solidly by an undeniably talented group of actors, they’re shoehorned into the show with an incredible lack of ease, fluidity, and self-awareness. Each is like a square peg in a round hole, with a sense that it was only picked because the first lyric or two made some sense in the context.

With the weird balancing act this show tries to achieve between a very old-time story and a very punchy karaoke score, the audience can’t fail to laugh at each and every song choice (the most important word there being ‘at’, not with). As Sir Hugo, played by Oliver Savile, attempts to ‘woo’ Katie Birtill’s Princess Hanna with a rendition of Enrique Iglesias’ Hero, and the death of Prince Gawain (Andy Moss) is mourned through He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother and REM’s Everybody Hurts, one starts to wonder whether Knights of the Rose is supposed to be a comedy, a kind of rock Spamalot.

Other elements of the production descend into a kind of cheap farce too, with a decent looking but flimsily built set that wobbles each time a character sits down. One piece of the set’s dressing even fell down during the press night performance, leading me to wonder if it was put together by the same people who did Theresa May’s speech at the Tory Party conference.

The costuming is pleasing enough to the eye but again very confused, with the Knights clad in a mix of armour and skinny jeans, while the ladies are thrown into full period costumes but with shoes that look like they’ve just been picked up from Topshop.

Despite their bonkers surroundings, the cast do get the chance to turn out some excellent performances. Racky Plews’ direction and choreography is sound, and the piece is visually exciting even if the content is not, with a lot of eye-catching effects thrown in to the battle scenes (excusing the cheap plastic horses). Adam Pearce, who plays King Aethelstan, showcases an enchantingly good voice, while Chris Cowley’s raw talent for rock music shines through. Matt Thorpe’s Sir Horatio gives off some strong comedic turns and adds a glimmer of hope to an otherwise very flat book.

The female trio of Katie Birtill, Rebekah Lowings, and Bleu Woodward gave some real stand-out renditions of the classic rock score too, leaving me wanting any one of them to finally get a solo number that wasn’t cut across halfway through by some attempt at foreshadowing or plot development.

In summary, this musical takes all the possible pitfalls of a jukebox musical and lays them bare on the Arts Theatre stage. The piece takes itself far too seriously, without a whiff of self-awareness, leaving audiences baffled and simply laughing to fill the awkwardness. The song list is cliche, the orchestrations boring, and the book’s humour barely existent. It’s very hard to quite string a sentence together to describe this production when it doesn’t even seem to know itself, so I’ll leave you with an audience comment I heard while leaving the auditorium last night, “It was like it was written over a weekend with a few beers”.