Since its announcement back in March, the Arts Theatre’s latest show has been causing quite a stir in the capital – from a multitude of posters, to performances at West End LIVE and a horseback photo shoot on Tower Bridge. It is now open and is due to have a fairly limited run over the summer at this theatre. Knights of the Rose is a jukebox musical that pulls together songs from various artists to tell an original story, assisted by various works from classic literature (including Chaucer, Blake, Tennyson and Shakespeare) as well as some more modern references.
The Knights of the House of Rose, led by Prince Gawain, have been away on campaign for five years, and now are set to return home off the back of many honourable victories. Lady Isabel hopes that Gawain will return her affections when they are reunited, and his sister Hannah also has romance on her mind – though beforehand she doesn’t seem too picky, after spending a bit of time with Sir Hugo they fall in love and he vows to give up his warrior life for good. However, the knights are soon called upon to fight King Mordred in Avalon; Sir Palamon (who has also falled for Hannah) schemes to get Sir Hugo back on the battlefield where he can be left to be killed, so the path to Hannah is clear for him on his return. Who will make it back alive?
It’s hard to know where to start. The show’s creator, Jennifer Marsden, has pulled together over 50 different references to create the script, some of which come from many centuries ago – others are taken from 19th and 20th century works. It is a complete muddle that really doesn’t fit together with any kind of cohesion. The number of sources perhaps wouldn’t be as much of an issue if they’d all come from the same author (GOLEM! Theatre’s Tomorrow Creeps demonstrated that a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets could fit together to create a challenging piece of theatre) or from the same period in history, but when you see that a Charlie Chaplin reference has been sandwiched between two from Shakespeare… You can almost see the join, like a cut & shut car – only this is unsafe in an artistic sense. What also jars are the songs that have been added in on top of the script. Marsden admits in her programme notes that she “wrote the story before choosing the music”, and you can absolutely tell; they clash with the text and it just doesn’t have an organic feel to it.
The fact that many of the songs are incredibly well-known doesn’t help this either, as the audience hears a familiar melody (e.g. Everybody Hurts by R.E.M.) or a key word (e.g. Hannah mentions her need for a “hero”, and Holding Out For A Hero starts up) and can’t help but laugh as they recognise it. Though the worst idea of all is to incorporate some lyrics into the script before launching into the song – admittedly, given that the show has been sold as a full-on rock musical, there will be some in the audience who are clueless about “would you dance if I asked you to dance” was heading, but it’s familiar to enough people to draw one of the biggest laughs of the show. Slightly awkward, given that it’s supposed to be quite a tender moment…
The show is packed with confusion and plot holes. The knights frequently reference Hannah and Isabel being “girls” the last time they saw them – but this was only five years ago. Have the knights been lusting after the memories of 13-year-old children over their entire campaign? It’s bad enough that Marsden hasn’t thought to give her female characters more purpose than simply being the focus of the men’s passions (when she could easily have introduced at least one independent-thinking woman like Kate the blacksmith in the film A Knight’s Tale), but this… I also don’t understand the episode surrounding Sir Hugo changing his mind and choosing to go & fight in Avalon. Hannah rejects him when she learns he’s gone back on his promise to her, giving Sir Palamon her favour instead – even though he’s still going off to battle. And, despite this, he persists in his plan to ensure Sir Hugo is bumped off. See what I mean? Unnecessarily complicated and also makes no sense.
I’m not really sure what purpose the part-time narrator serves, other than perhaps to shoe-horn some more text in or make it feel more like an ‘olde worlde playe’ – when all it really does is slow things down and pad it out to an overly long 2.5 hours. There’s also no need to have a song for absolutely everything, as it all starts to get rather predictable and repetitive. Most of all: why so serious?! I can’t work out whether it’s the mark of an overprotective writer or a misstep by the director (Racky Plews), but either way it’s an absolute folly to try and make this into a serious piece. If its innate campness had been embraced then it could actually be an entertaining night out, but as the actors have presumably been told to play it straight the audience ends up laughing at them rather than with them. Plaudits to the cast for getting through it without corpsing, but it seems mightily unfair to be putting them in that position in the first place.
As well as directing, Plews has also choreographed the show, but sadly it falls quite flat. It lacks dynamism in the moments where the show most needs an energy boost, never quite matching the pace and power of the music that accompanies it. The scene transitions are similarly uninspiring, resorting to blackouts as the poor stage crew are made to scrabble around with set amendments – when something more inventive could occasionally be thrown in, such as pulling focus away from the set change or choreographing it so it has a more natural flow.
Speaking of the set, I think Diego Pitarch’s design is slightly overambitious. The castle is so rickety that the House of Rose had better not let their enemies get too close – it wouldn’t last the night, that’s for sure! I don’t want to spoil the surprise too much, but the horses are also a mistake if you’re not going for laughs… Dom Baker’s projections aren’t especially effective; the better ones don’t really add anything to the show, and those that are more important aren’t particularly visible.
Bar one slightly questionable song partway through the second act, the vocal performances are absolutely brilliant and you can certainly see why these performers have been cast. It’s not at all enough to save the show though; the content is so disjointed it’s easy to forget how good the last bit of singing was when you’re already cringing at the next bit of dialogue (or monologue…). With the majority of tickets well over £30 (going up to a completely unjustified £69.50), it might be worth staying at home with Netflix, where you can find A Knight’s Tale if the blend of rock music and all things medieval is what you’re after…
My verdict? A shambolic show that takes itself far too seriously, missing a camp comedy open goal in its attempt to be intelligent – it’s well sung, but everything else leaves a lot to be desired.
Knights of the Rose runs at the Arts Theatre (West End) until 26 August 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.