Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Ben Elton scripts the Rod Stewart musical and comes up with a devilish twist. Is it a match made in heaven or hell?
The litmus test for Tonight’s the Night comes in the form of a makeshift sailor hat. You find it waiting ominously on your seat at the Marlowe. If the prospect of waving along to Sailing with paper on your head is a thrilling one, you’ll be fine. But if it seems like an awkward Christmas dinner come early, you’re in trouble.
So-called ‘compilation musicals’ are charged with tying together a greatest hits album with the string of story. A certain flimsiness is expected – it’s not as if Les Mis was fashioned from Blue’s back catalogue – but you get the feeling Ben Elton wrote Tonight’s the Night in his pyjamas.
For plot we get Bedevilled, as shy Stuart enlists Satan (Tiffany Graves doubling up as Baby Jane) to swap his soul for Rod Stewart’s. Instant charisma ensues, along with enlarged appendages, to the excitement of Stu’s crush Mary. Our hero sets off for rock stardom, but I wonder if he’ll lose the qualities that made him loveable along the way?
Accents are put-on American, despite Rod Stewart being a British star. This allows Elton to literalise Gasoline Alley as an oil-stained backwater, and to wheel on a tour bus headed for California. It’s difficult to see what else the US setting accomplishes, and the story is both too silly and slight to care much. On the plus side, a subplot involving an unrequited love triangle claws back a sliver of sincerity.
Many of the performances have real heart, especially in the second half, which makes them stand out all the more from jokes about Rod’s rod. Ben Heathcote is a consistent lead as Stuart but Jenna Lee-James is particularly good, Rosie Heath belts out a passionate The First Cut is the Deepest, and Andy Rees’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It just about steals the show.
Meanwhile Ricky Rojas does his best as guitarist Stoner, channelling Keith Richards by way of Withnail and I’s drug dealer. He gets the bulk of Elton’s dad-gags and the night’s biggest laughs; his corpsing with Stu and Baby Jane also goes down well – even if it’s scripted.
The live band deserves plaudits, handling both lighter and rockier tracks with gusto. They get the twang of Maggie May’s iconic intro and amp up the solos in the show’s latter stages. At times the guitars compete with vocals, which may explain why certain numbers sound over-mic’d.
The Rod Stewart musical is, predictably, the Rod Stewart musical. We can’t hope for Elton to produce a stage show of comparable quality to Blackadder. It’s just a shame when he seems so light on inspiration, leaving the songs and performances to stand by themselves.
See the show if you like the tunes, but don’t expect a barrel or even a tin can of laughs – until a thousand people put on paper hats.