WE WILL ROCK YOU **** PLAYHOUSE, EDINBURGH RAIN MAN **** KING'S THEATRE, EDINBURGH THE LIFE OF WILEY *** ORAN MOR, GLASGOW
IF THE medium is the message, then We Will Rock You – the spectacular Queen tribute musical scripted by Ben Elton – must be one of the most confusing Christmas shows ever to strut its stuff on the vast stage of the Edinburgh Playhouse.
Yet on Monday night, when a crowd of 3,000 rose as one to roar out their welcome to Queen guitarist Brian May as he strolled on stage to play the finale, followed in short order by drummer Roger Taylor, it was hard not to feel that this desperately self-conscious and sometimes self-contradictory tribute musical was likely to give tens of thousands of theatregoers more pure pleasure, over the coming Christmas season, than many a show with stronger artistic credentials.
• Neil Morrissey as Raymond Babbitt and Oliver Chris as Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man. Picture: Complimentary
Set 300 years from now, in a miserably dystopian future – when the Earth is a giant mall ruled by the all-powerful Globalsoft corporation, all music is computer-generated, and musical instruments have been destroyed and banned – We Will Rock You presents itself as a rallying cry to reassert the power and spirit of real rock, against the evil commercial forces which, ever since the days of Simon Cowell, have been conspiring to destroy it.
The difficulty is, though, that right from the outset, Elton's script doesn't know how seriously to take this quest, led by a geeky 24th-century hero called Galileo Figaro, who hears the sounds of great lost rock classics in his head; his girlfriend, the mouthy, goth-styled Scaramouche, constantly mocks his aspirations, even as she helps him along. Beyond that, the sheer technical spectacle of the production – with its glitzy pomp-rock style, beautifully-drilled chorus, massive lightshows, and vast computer-generated images of a 24th-century cyber-world – inevitably undermines the show's claims to be all about the basic revolutionary joy of the human voice matched with the electric guitar. And finally, there are the structural problems raised by the show's determination to fit more than two dozen Queen songs into the story, so that many of the greatest hits appear only in tantalising fragments.
Somehow, though, despite all of these problems, the sheer glamour and power of Queen's music simply drives the show on, through a dazzling range of songs from Radio Gaga and Crazy Little Thing Called Love to We Are The Champions and the title song itself. Michael Falzon, in the leading role as Galileo, sometimes looks a little overwhelmed by the weight of expectation he carries, as the fifty-something fans roar out their adoration; only Darren Day looks thoroughly at ease, in his role as the villain Khashoggi. But the atmosphere is genial, the music is great, the dancing is superb, the spectacle is unsurpassed; and the audience emerges into the Edinburgh night walking on air, and grinning from ear to ear.
If We Will Rock You has the narrative shape of a classic fairytale – boy follows his dream, gets his girl, and defeats evil for ever – then Barry Morrow's Rain Man is an extreme version of another classic genre, the American buddy movie. In this story – made famous by the award-winning 1988 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, and playing this week at the King's in a powerful new production of Dan Gordon's stage version – pushy LA car salesman and hustler, Charlie Babbitt, is suddenly thrown into the company of Raymond, the severely autistic but strangely gifted brother he never knew he had, and who has now inherited the whole of the family fortune.
In the course of a few days, Charlie is transformed from a greedy boy holding his own vulnerable brother hostage for cash, to a man who is gradually reconnecting with his lost childhood, and beginning to understand what brotherly love might be. But if the arc of the story is simple and sentimental, the detail is both fascinating in itself, and valuable for the insight it offers into the strange and wonderful minds of people with autism; and it's this detail of the interaction between the two men that is most beautifully captured in Robin Herford's fine touring production, which stars a fiercely convincing Oliver Chris as Charlie, and a remarkable, touching, and infinitely watchable Neil Morrissey as Raymond.
The show also boasts some clever, stylish sets in American road movie style, and effective supporting performances. But the focus is always, and rightly, on the ever-changing interaction between the two brothers; in a story which will touch the heart of anyone who has ever recognised, in anyone they love, that strange mixture of untouchability and vulnerability, distance and brilliant intimacy, that finally makes Raymond so irreplaceable.
The hostage story is another increasingly familiar dramatic genre; and Sean Hardie makes a brave, experimental stab at it in this week's Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime show, even if the end result is a shade unsatisfactory. In a dingy basement, a terrorist in combat gear is abusing a prisoner in a white suit and clerical collar, kidnapped in the market place; but it soon becomes clear that all is not what it seems, and that the protagonists are both far more lost than they seem.
Awkwardly poised between reductive comedy and real poignancy, and full of odd explanatory monologues, The Life Of Wylie often struggles to hold the attention, even over a brief 45 minutes. But it creates space for striking performances from Alan Steele as the hostage, and a brilliant James Young as the would-be terrorist; reminding us that for a project built around new writing, Play, Pie and Pint also has a formidable track-record in showcasing and developing the finest young Glasgow actors on the block.
• We Will Rock You runs until 9 January. Rain Man and The Life Of Wylie both run until 14 November.