Jukebox musicals are undeniably hit and miss. For every We Will Rock You, there’s a Rock of Ages – and you can feel free to decide which of those is the good one. Though they are a staple of London’s West End programming, do they have a place at the Fringe? Surely lack of space, or performance costs would preclude such a show from realisation. Well, not for Paul O’Donnell.
O’Donnell’s work walks a fine line between homage and spoof of the jukebox genre
Creator and performer, O’Donnell opens the show by recognising these limitations, with the assurance that they will not prevent him from delivering the musical we all want to see – one based on the songs of Jon Bon Jovi. So he doesn’t have a cast, an orchestra or any set. He does have a soundtrack, an unbelievable number of lighting cues and the belief that the audience will imagine the rest whilst he sits to explain his vision. “It’s not strange,” O’Donnell promises, “It’s postmodern”.
There is an incredible amount of self awareness in O’Donnell’s work, walking a fine line between homage and spoof of the jukebox genre. Just when he appears to be sending up a familiar trope, he will break into an impressively choreographed dance fill. This is added to by O’Donnell’s on-stage persona, a seemingly shy performer with an unwavering confidence in his creative choices, and the talent to match. “I’m what’s known in the industry as a triple threat”, he quips, and it’s true.
Good news for non-fans - only one Bon Jovi song is actually used, and yes, you know the one. This in itself is both a strength and a weakness. The recurrence is funny and the variations on the melody are brilliant – a Spanish guitar and a druidic choir being just two of the versions used. But Bon Jovi’s oeuvre is wider and more popular than O’Donnell makes it out to be, and he could have had a little more fun playing with some of the other well known tracks. Similarly, a continuing joke about the speech of Spanish characters in the show is a little too underthought to consistently land. The mannerism affected is perhaps not offensive, but certainly plays on a negative stereotype that doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to Bon Jovi or to the rest of the show.
O’Donnell’s performance is strongest when manipulating the well known aspects of a West End musical, and their impossibility in a Fringe context. Audacious lighting, tap dancing and weak filler dialogue all appear, but on a smaller scale. With a little bit of imagination, this could be as grand a show as it would be in the West End. Or, it is an intelligent comedy about an outdated mode of theatre. There is a sense that O’Donnell wants his show to be both of these things, and doesn’t care which the audience wants to see. Regardless, there is something here for everyone and just try not to be on your feet by the end, singing and clapping along to that all too catchy refrain.