KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE
The Arts Theatre, London, Thursday 12th July, 2018
The jukebox musical is a long-established genre and a lucrative one (when it comes to the likes of Mamma Mia!) taking the back catalogue of an artiste or a period or a genre and shoehorning songs into a paper-thin plot. Here, show creator Jennifer Marsden goes a step farther by shoehorning quotations from classical literature into the dialogue. And so we get swathes of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Chaucer, along with Tennyson, Blake, Burns… The programme has three pages listing literary references… The overall effect, apart from showing how adept Marsden is at cutting-and-pasting, is perhaps not the desired one, as ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ give way to song lyrics in which characters refer to each other as ‘Baby’. That clunking sound may not be the scenery being manoeuvred into position but the gear change in your mind as we lurch from period to period.
What this means is Name That Tune collides with Place That Quotation, keeping us at a distance from the characters and the unfolding drama. Moments of emotional impact are therefore diluted by our, what Brecht would call, alienation from what’s unfolding. Any engagement we have is with the performers, all of them working hard to keep this balloon in the air, and all of them wildly impressive.
Everything is played straight. To spoof it up would give us another Spamalot. To give us another Camelot, the show would need an original score. No, Knights of the Rose is definitely its own thing.
Leading the cast as Prince Gawain is former-Hollyoaks star Andy Moss, who proved his mettle as a vocalist in a recent nationwide tour of Ghost. Moss here proves himself more than capable of delivering rousing speeches to his troops – next stop, The RSC? – and he does his best with a character that has no flaws or self-doubt, or anything to get his teeth into. He gets a couple of Bon Jovi numbers to belt out, so all is well.
Oliver Savile is floppy-haired Sir Hugo, the romantic lead, singing pop, rock (and later, classical) with a clear, sweet voice. His rival Sir Palamon (in this performance, played by Ian Gareth Jones) brings musical theatre intonations to the rock songs, along with a meatier stage presence. Matt Thorpe’s Sir Horatio does extremely well with his songs in a high register, while Ruben Van Leer’s humble John perhaps has the purest, most searing voice of all.
Van Leer sort of narrates, linking scenes together with recitations of verse. He speaks with feeling and clarity but there are perhaps too many of these, keeping John out of the action, commenting on it (sometimes tangentially) rather than taking part, and slowing things down for the rest of us.
Katie Birtill’s Princess Hannah and Rebekah Lowings’s Lady Isabel, supported by handmaid Emily (Blue Woodward) provide a couple of the show’s highlights, absolutely killing Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero and Total Eclipse of the Heart. The vocals are superb, and the staging by director Racky Plews gives us 1980s rock video. Plews blends modern choreography with period moves, and so we get Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale meets Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale.
Bringing gravitas to the piece are Adam Pearce as Aethelstan and Rebecca Bainbridge as Matilda, King and Queen, two more mature players in this young cast.
There are moments of brilliance. A stylised battle, complete with horses’ heads and animated rain, is evocative and effective. A medieval chant, from Adam Pearce’s King Aethelstan, reverberates with drama as well as his beautiful bass baritone…
The creative choices are audacious, at turns bemusing and gobsmacking, but it’s the performers that give us the enjoyment, that sell us this hodgepodge and we like it.
How to fix it? Me, I’d start lighter, to give more time for us to get attached to the characters and accustomed to the style before the action proper kicks in. The transitions from poetry to rock song should be smoother, rather than speedbumps in the way of our engagement. And give us a song we can sing along with for a more rousing finale.
Somewhere within in all this is the potential for a great show. As it is, it’s a lot of fun – as a rock concert cum poetry recital delivered in fancy dress.