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We Will Rock You, first impressions .. 14 June 2022
We Will Rock You - London Coliseum, Summer 2023 The news that Lee was to play Khashoggi in a new West End production of the iconic We Will Rock You, 21 years after it first opened at the Dominion, was a huge and hugely welcome surprise... and yet, at the same time, no surprise at all. I can't help thinking that his new look, without the trademark mop of curls, has thrown open the doors to roles I suspect he may not even have been considered for before ... and how exciting is that for the future?!

But I digress, this is about We Will Rock You at the London Coliseum, which had its first preview on Friday 2nd June and its gala night just five days later. I was privileged to be at both (and a couple of shows in between) to witness Lee's return to the West End after a decade of TV work, touring productions and solo concert tours. While a London stage is familiar turf, the role is not... last year's cynical and self-serving Billy Flynn was but a step along the path to the out and out baddie that is Commander Khashoggi.

So, does Lee have a baddie in him? Hell, yes! From his first appearance (actually not quite the first - I'll leave you to spot him in the opening number), even with his always expressive eyes hidden behind dark glasses, we are left in no doubt of his evil intent... nor of just how much Lee is relishing this role. When the shades come off, the steely expression takes on an occasionally wild-eyed edge that is perfectly suited to his sinister yet deliciously camp sidekick to Brenda Edwards' Killer Queen. And we haven't even heard him sing yet!

But before we do, there is much else of this production to absorb and mostly, to admire. Writer/director Ben Elton also takes on the role of Pop (his first professional musical theatre role) in this production - a role he plays enthusastically, albeit with a slight tendency (in early previews at least) to forget he's playing a role rather than working a comedy crowd, and I think even he would agree that singing is not his forte! His opening monologue, referencing the original Dominion production and its sound thrashing by the critics, felt a little self-indulgent and I think today's crop of critics have risen to his implied 'do your worst, we don't need you' challenge with even more enthusiasm than their 2002 counterparts (see Reviews round-up). We shouldn't be surprised at this... the show is very much as it ever was - a ludicrous plot, leaning heavily on a few over-used in jokes, and crafted (a word I use loosely) with the sole purpose of packing in as many Queen songs as possible (in which aim, it succeeds magnificently) - nor disheartened, as the criticism is not of the performers. This production will no doubt pack out the Coliseum for its 12 week run as easily as the original did the Dominion for 12 years!

Brenda Edwards (Killer Queen), Lee Mead (Khashoggi) and ensemble, We Will Rock You - London Coliseum, Summer 2023 Mining the incredibly rich musical seam, and making the most of the comedy, is a fantastic cast with the range and dexterity, vocal and otherwise, to do both with ease. Reprising their roles from the recent tour, Ian McIntosh gives us a Galileo driven by voices in his head which separate him from the crowd and make him cocky and unsure by turn, while Elena Skye's Scaramouche hides her own isolation behind a spiky humour which she delivers with impeccable timing. Leading the Bohemians, Adrian Hansel (Brit) and Christine Allado (Meat) have great chemistry together and the latter gives one of the stand-out vocal performances of the show with No-One But You (Only the Good Die Young). Brenda Edwards has of course played Killer Queen before and does so again with punch and power, her always impressive voice leaving us in no doubt who's boss, though I don't always quite get the 'Killer' vibe I've seen from other Queens. I hear excellent things too of her alternate, Jenny O'Leary, but have yet to see for myself her Killer Queen (again reprised from the recent tour). Last, but the very antithesis of least, the ensemble... in Ga Ga mode, they deliver the sharp choreography with perfect, synchronous conformity; as Bohemians, they give attitude and humour to the residents of the Heartbreak Hotel; throughout they give voice to Queen's music with the same passion and conviction as the principal cast.

Lee Mead (Khashoggi), We Will Rock You - London Coliseum, Summer 2023 The set (Stufish Entertainment Architects) is minimal, relying largely on projections, mostly recycled from the original Dominion production, with only the Bohemians' hang-out, the Heartbreak Hotel, having a more defined space. I've seen some criticism of this, along with the literal 'man-handling' by stagehands of the larger set pieces in other scenes, and feel that a graphics refresh might have done more to update the show than the contemporary cultural references wedged, often uncomfortably, into the dialogue) but given the strictly limited run, I can't find it in myself to mind too much - this show has always been more about the music.

And the music is in very good hands, though the sound balance could use some tweaking to allow the many amazing voices to be heard above the brilliant band. There have been some song changes from the original, mostly introduced during the recent tour. Most notable for me are the addition of The Show Must Go On as the Act 1 finale (at the cost of Play the Game) and the extension of Don't Stop Me Now to full length. While the latter gives Khashoggi the opportunity to deploy his full range of interruption techniques, I think I prefer the original version and would have enjoyed seeing Lee finally run out of patience, roaring 'STOP' until band, Killer Queen and her entourage stutter to a halt under his vocal onslaught!

Which brings me neatly back to Lee... I don't know exactly what I hoped for from Lee in this role, except that my expectations of him are always high. Did I envision this swaggering psychopath with the maniacal laugh? Not entirely... even Lee confessed, when we spoke briefly at Stage Door, to being surprised at the leeway given to him by Ben Elton to explore the darkness in the role. Did I realise quite how hot he would be as a baddie? Well, maybe! Safe to say, as usual, my expectations have been well and truly exceeded. Lee is a convincingly evil Khashoggi, embracing the campness of the role without ever tipping over into full-blown panto villain. His voice fills the cavernous Coliseum with ease - A Kind of Magic with Brenda in the first half and Seven Seas of Rhye in the second are real highlights, demonstrating rock credentials that should come as no surprise after his series-defining performance of Paint It Black on Any Dream Will Do - and I only wish we could hear more from him.

Brian May, Roger Taylor and the cast of We Will Rock You - London Coliseum, Summer 2023 All good things must end, they say, and as this wafer-thin plot reaches its conclusion, the show turns full-on rock concert as the audience joins in, with hands and voice, for We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. The latter has always triggered memories in me from when it was first released (yes, I am that old!) of singing along to it on the radio from the back seat of the coach on a school trip to Paris! I believe that may now have been eclipsed by the sight, as I looked over my shoulder on the first night of the run, of all four levels of the Coliseum on their feet, arms swaying, singing their hearts out. There was added excitement at last Wednesday's gala press night (and the previous Monday's media night) when Sir Brian May, guitar in hand, rose through the stage trailing smoke to join the cast for their finale performance of, what else could it be but... Bohemian Rhapsody. Many cameras were held aloft - you can see my own capture here as well as a short clip of the earlier curtain call. Finally, the whole cast and band, returned to the stage to be joined again by Sir Brian, this time with fellow Queen legend, Roger Taylor, as Ben Elton gave a short speech - all in all a fitting end to a fabulous 'night at the opera' house.

Tickets are available from the venue's website and, as is the norm with the Coliseum's summer musicals, are at premium prices, though cheaper options are available in the higher levels. There are also Rush tickets at TodayTix (available 10am daily for that day's show(s) - you'll need the app) and it's also worth keeping your eye on TheatreMonkey for news of any special offers (there was an excellent deal for some shows in June, nothing yet announced for later dates).

Published: 14/06/2023
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