Monday 9 July 2018


Knights of the Rose at the Arts Theatre

Shakespeare and the stage go hand-in-hand. And even King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table don't look out of place in a theatrical setting. But combining these sources with 80s and 90s pop and rock classics from the likes of Bon Jovi, No Doubt, Meat Loaf and The Calling? That's a new one, for sure. Knights of the Rose mixes all these different influences, throwing in some Keats, Burns and Marlowe for good measure, to create a literary and musical melting pot that is a bit silly at times but also incredibly epic through fantastic staging and powerful performances by its cast.

Knights, princesses, heroes, villains, a love triangle and an impeding war, Knights of the Rose has all the classic ingredients for an epic medieval saga that will lead to inevitable bloodshed and heartbreak. At the centre of the tale are Prince Gawain (Andy Moss) and his betrothed Lady Isabel (Rebekah Lowings), alongside his sister, Princess Hannah (Katie Birtill), and the two knights vying for her hand in marriage, Sir Hugo (Oliver Savile) and Sir Palamon (Chris Cowley).

The tales of the heroic knights and their entangled love stories are set to a classic score of pop and rock tunes. Opening with Blaze of Glory, the show rapidly runs through a solid repertoire of greatest hits from the latter part of the 20th century, including Addicted to Love, Don't Speak, Everybody Hurts, Total Eclipse of the Heart, Survival, Hero and many more.

The limited dialogue in between is mostly lifted from or inspired by some of the greatest writers and speakers throughout history. Think William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, John Keats, Christopher Marlowe, Lord Alfred Tennyson and, even, Abraham Lincoln. So if the rock and pop classics used throughout aren't entirely up your street, you'll probably pick up on a literary reference or two along the way instead to spark some recognition.

Jukebox musicals – shows set to popular music rather than having an original score – are the marmite of the theatre world; you either love 'em or you hate 'em. I do enjoy a good jukebox show when I know most of the songs and there is a story keeping it all together rather than it being just a concert staging of someone's greatest hits, and thankfully there was a decent enough plot moving everything along in this show. It was a bit light on character development and sometimes even plausible storyline progressions, but there was an attempt nonetheless.

Opening with Blaze of Glory is a bold move but one that paid off. The stage at the Arts Theatre is a small one, yet the lighting, staging, choreography and powerful vocals all come together wonderfully to create an incredibly epic start to the show, setting expectations high for what is to come. And for the start of that first act those expectations are more than met. Strong female characters are introduced as they sing a fun rendition of Holding Out For a Hero, followed by hunky knights with killer vocals in the form of Oliver Savile and Chris Cowley (I was #TeamHugo from the very start) and a charming moment when Ruben van Keer gently performs Turn! Turn! Turn!

Unfortunately, once the initial excitement over that epic start wanes off, the show loses its focus and allure somewhat. It keeps going back and forth between trying to be serious with romantic antics and knightly heroics and being over-the-top and a bit silly. Instead of playing up the laughs a la Spamalot, the show wants to be taken seriously, but with stifled giggles from the audience throughout at the wrong times this clearly doesn't work. I mean, when the first recognisable tones of Enrique Iglesias' Hero sound through the theatre while you've just listened to a Shakespearean monologue, how can you not crack a smile?

And when one of the characters suddenly pulls out an electric guitar for a rockin' solo jam session you know the show has quite literally lost the plot. This is fine if the characters are in on the joke, but they aren't and that makes it all just a bit awkward. Having said that, the first act of Knights of the Rose is still hugely enjoyable. The second half is more rushed, without as many recognisable songs or memorable performances, but the first half? It is super fun and the cast is incredible; their vocals and performances are easily worth the ticket price alone.

If Knights of the Rose amps up its silliness and lets the characters be a knowing part of it – with an explicit wink or two in the direction of the audience at times – it'll iron out some of its current teething problems and really bring a renewed focus on the incredible cast and their kick-ass performances; those vocals blew me away time and time again. Shakespearean 80s rock somehow works, and when the show is tightened up it will not only open with a Blaze of Glory but go out in one too.

Knights of the Rose is playing at the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square until 26 August 2018. Book your tickets here.

🎵 Listening to: Taylor Swift – Love Story

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