Considering I’m a huge Queen fan, as evidenced by my ongoing Queen At 50 series of ridiculously obsessive album reviews, it seems hard to believe that I’ve never seen We Will Rock You before. But when it was in London I lived too far away to get to it easily, and I wasn’t aware of audio described performances back then either (if they even existed at that time), so I didn’t go to the theatre much as I often couldn’t see what was going on very well.
In its early days there was also a part of me that was uncertain how well Queen’s songs would transfer to a stage musical, or how such a wildly varied catalogue of hits could possibly be shoehorned into some kind of coherent story. Some theatrical adaptations of songs can be rather bland or overly cheesy, rather than captivating entertainment. And anyone you compare with Freddie and the original band is always going to be inferior to some degree. So I’m always a bit wary of anyone covering their material, some of which is rather complex in its structure and harmonies. Plus the story, written by Ben Elton (who has returned to direct the 20th anniversary tour), also sounded a bit silly when I first heard about it. And there seemed to be a lot of reviews by critics that were less than favourable.
However, much like my early misgivings about the Adam Lambert touring collaboration, the more I learnt about the Queen musical and the more popular it became as time went on, the more interested I became in going to see it one day. I got the soundtrack album, which demonstrated how they’d adapted the songs, and I’ve seen various clips of the cast on TV, DVD extras and online over the years, all of which have helped to fuel my interest.
And so finally, in March this year, I had the opportunity to see the 20th anniversary touring production, when an audio described performance was announced at the Milton Keynes Theatre. Hence that was my main reason for visiting the town. I just decided to make a week of it to see other things as well, including the museums I’ve written about in my previous post.
There were a couple of issues to start with though. Upon arrival at the theatre, it turned out that the touch tour had been cancelled due to lack of interest, and I hadn’t been informed because I wasn’t on the list. Instead I was told that I should have booked it separately, which hadn’t been mentioned to me when I booked the accessible performance over the phone, nor was it stated on the website (it was just listed as being related to the AD performance, but there wasn’t a dedicated booking link for it). Occasionally I do get asked when booking AD shows if I want to attend the tours, so maybe I could have queried it while on the phone for this one, but often I’m just given the details about them so I can turn up, and I’ve never had to ask about it or book separately before. So I don’t know if the tour would have gone ahead if I’d been on the list, or if others had had similar misunderstandings to me, or if there just hadn’t been many AD users in general. But in any case, that was quite disappointing, I’d really been looking forward to that special aspect of it.
There was then some confusion over how the audio description was to be delivered, as it seemed neither myself nor the lady at the box office had been given the right information. She gave me a headset (a single wireless unit with 2 earphones sticking out of it like antennae), but then told me I needed to download the Sennheiser MobileConnect app as well. Which didn’t make sense, because I know from experience that the headset is a self-functioning unit that both receives and outputs the audio description, while the app picks up the AD via wi-fi and delivers it through the phone’s speaker (I’ve previously used the latter when seeing Wicked). As the lady seemed certain I needed both the headset and the app, however, I did try it during the pre-show notes, in case there was some fancy wireless connectivity between the phone and the headset that I hadn’t previously known about. But, as expected, that wasn’t possible, or if it was then I couldn’t figure it out.
So I needed headphones to listen to the AD through my phone. But as I hadn’t been forewarned about that, I hadn’t brought any with me. Fortunately a member of staff was able to find some spare headphones that came with a Lightning connector (as modern iPhones like mine don’t have standard headphone jacks), which meant I finally got things working. I’d missed most of the live pre-show notes by then though, so it’s just as well I’d already listened to the pre-recorded notes on the VocalEyes website prior to visiting. Not that I could remember them all, of course, but I had a fair sense of what to expect from those notes and my general knowledge about the show.
So thankfully, despite all of those mixups, the show itself was amazing, and the audio description was very useful, giving me information about the characters, action, props, etc that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Granted, it was drowned out by a few of the louder songs – but I also had a great front row seat (which easily explains the volume issue!), and had my monocular (my small telescope) with me to look a bit more closely at things sometimes. So I don’t think I missed anything vitally important, and I got enough detail to enjoy the production.
The story in the show is indeed ridiculous, but in a fun way. It also has a few parallels to modern life, and an important underlying message about freedom of expression and creativity. It’s set in the distant future, where the Globalsoft Corporation, run by Killer Queen (played by Jenny O’Leary), controls everybody on Earth (now called the iPlanet). As a result, everybody acts in the same way, thinks the same thoughts, plays the same games, listens to the same dull manufactured pop music, etc. There’s no individuality, no creativity, no unique sense of self, and everybody has been conditioned to enjoy and embrace their mundane, repetitive existence. They have no knowledge and don’t care about what life on Earth was like in the past.
But there are rebels who wish to restore the joyous freedoms they believe the residents of their world once possessed. In particular, a new young graduate called Galileo (Damien Walsh in our show instead of Ian McIntosh) can hear music and lyrics from the past in his head, though he doesn’t understand why. But he can tell something is wrong with the world around him, and so doesn’t play ball. Fate then brings him together with non-conformist goth girl Scary Bush… sorry, I mean Scaramouche (Elena Skye). And together they manage to find a whole group of rebels called The Bohemians, who have been attempting to do their own research into the world’s past. So they all pursue their shared goal of defeating Killer Queen, by searching for a lost electric guitar in the ruins of Wembley Stadium, that can reignite the world and free everybody from Globalsoft’s tyranny.
It’s all done with tongue very firmly in cheek, with a lot of humour throughout. They’ve even kept it topical with a couple of pandemic references. When Killer Queen is venting her frustrations to police commander Khashoggi (Adam Strong) at one stage, she tells him that he’s like Covid because he just won’t bugger off. And Galileo and Scaramouche pulled out face coverings when they were about to kiss, which generated laughter and applause in recognition from the audience (most of whom weren’t wearing masks incidentally).
And talking of things to wear, all of the costumes were wonderful as well. It’s a shame I didn’t get the opportunity to look at them closely on a touch tour, but from what I could see, and was told by the audio description, they were really nicely put together, well suited to the characters, and often very colourful. The video screen at the back of the stage also added a lot of exciting animation and colour throughout the show, as it was designed to feel like a rock concert at times, not just a musical.
And on that note, the songs are excellently performed, which comes as no surprise. Ben Elton’s voiceover at the start asks people not to sing along, an understandable request given the temptation. And the audience obeyed, so we were able to enjoy all of the songs uninterrupted, a few of which have had their lyrics slightly adapted to fit the story. And inevitably the performances and arrangements have evolved over the years. The big difference I noticed to the original 2002 soundtrack album is with Don’t Stop Me Now – on the album Killer Queen is interrupted by Khashoggi after singing the intro, but in the current production Killer Queen gets to sing it in full, and then she interrupts Khashoggi when he starts singing the fade out refrain at the end. So that was fun, to hear the song performed in its entirety. No One But You is also another favourite of mine from the show, a very moving song that was beautifully performed here. And of course they do a rousing and impressive version of Bohemian Rhapsody as an encore. It’s admirable how many Queen hits they’ve crammed into the show really, in a way that makes some kind of sense.
Other references to music are abundant throughout the show as well, naturally. There are a couple of brief moments where you get to hear Freddie and Queen themselves, there are many references to other Queen lyrics, and there are little nods to other Queen songs played by the backing band in some of the scenes. It’s interesting to see how much you can spot. And there are countless references to other artists and other songs too, it’s a celebration of popular music in general as well as Queen.
So, despite the accessibility issues that hampered the start of the show, I really enjoyed the musical overall, and have since received a tour programme (for £7.50) and gold keyring (for £10) that I ordered from the merchandise store as souvenirs. It was fun, lively, amusing, and a great tribute to Queen’s music. I’m very glad I finally got around to seeing it, it was well worth the wait!
And that’s it, I hope you enjoyed my little review of the show. Join me next time for the final part of my Milton Keynes trilogy, rounding up my other little explorations in the area around my hotel.