Review - Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre)

Set in a fantastical Medieval England alternate universe, Knights of the Rose is a rocky romantic tale which follows the exploits of a dashing band of Knights, who return home after 5 long years at war. Combining snippets from iconic Medieval and Early Modern literature with the music of bands such as Bon Jovi, Muse, and No Doubt, Jennifer Marsden's Knights of the Rose is a new musical with ambitious scope.
Andy Moss and the cast of Knight of the Rose
Photo credit - Mark Dawson
Prince Gawain of the House of Rose makes the mistake of introducing two of his trusted friends to his sister, the golden haired Princess Hannah, and just like that an all-consuming love triangle ensues as the bright eyed and princely Sir Hugo and the dark and dangerous Sir Palamon fight it out for the fair maiden’s hand. But danger is just around the corner, and a brewing battle against the House of Rose’s greatest enemies spells peril for all three of the fledgling love birds, and sets Sir Palamon down a shadowy path.

It has to be said that the plot of Knights of the Rose is not its strong point. It’s an extremely severe and aggressively masculine tale, inexcusably told by an all-white cast, and filled with back slapping, wench wooing, and sword swinging. In every sense. The writing is also needlessly wordy, with creator Jennifer Marsden weaving together phases borrowed from Chaucer, Marlowe and Shakespeare to create an olde worlde patter which may very well be impressive and intricate on the page, but doesn’t always work on its feet. Ruben Van keer’s bard John, the narrator of the piece, just about pulls off the unwieldy shtick, but more often than not it just comes across as clunky.

The script is also less than kind to its female characters. Princess Hannah, the king’s ward Lady Isabel and their handmaiden Emily are a vocally electric trio of castle dwelling young women who announce themselves early on with an earth shattering rendition of I Need A Hero. It’s a moment that really gets the heart pounding and director Racky Plews’ simplistic synchronised choreography gives it a rather epic girl band vibe. What a shame then, that from that moment on they really have little else to do but pine after knights, swoon over knights and then worry about the knights of the Rose when they head off to battle again. Bleu Woodward’s Emily does have an interesting moment, wherein Sir Palamon uses knowledge about Emily’s sexual past (which he himself plays a part in) to blackmail her into silence after she catches him mid-dastardly monologue, and for a brief moment it seems as if Jennifer Marsden’s writing intends to explore and critique the dominant hegemonic masculinity within the story. But unfortunately the thread peters out, and never reaches a fulfilling conclusion. 
Rebekah Lowings, Bleu Woodward and Katie Birtill in Knights of the Rose
Photo credit - Mark Dawson
It must be said though, that whilst the plot leaves much to be desired, some moments do bring a welcome light-hearted streak to the proceedings. When Sir Hugo falls instantaneously in love with Princess Hannah for example, he wastes no time wooing her with some prime Enrique Iglesias. Hardly in keeping with the musical's classic rock vibe, intentionally or not it’s one of the musical’s most light-hearted scenes, and it’s pretty irresistible!

In fact, any time Knights of the Rose leans into its overblown and over the top elements it’s kind of hard not to be temporarily won over. After all, who doesn’t want to hear some of the most beloved classic rock songs of all time, performed by a cast of immensely talented vocalists, going full throttle? But for every fun and breezy moment there are several overly earnest ones. To put it simply, the musical is let down by its solemnity. Even the hapless knight Sir Horatio, introduced as a bumbling underdog desperately lovesick for his childhood friend Lady Isabel, eventually falls in line and becomes just as stoic as his brothers in arms. Matt Thorpe is excellent in the role though, with his rendition of Bon Jovi’s Always standing out as a particular musical highlight.

Despite all of Knights of the Rose’s aforementioned pitfalls, the cast do an incredible job of keeping the show marching along. Andy Moss undoubtedly gets the short end of the stick as the rather dry Prince Gawain, but the cast work well as an ensemble and there’s not a weak link amongst them. Although its Oliver Savile and Chris Cowley as Sir Hugo and Sir Palamon respectively, whose paint stripping vocals make the biggest mark.

Knights of the Rose features an enticing song list, which fits Jennifer Marsden’s story to a fault, but the unnecessary complexity of the book, and overly sincere tone, prevent it from soaring. The cast salvage what they can with committed performances and thrilling vocals, but unfortunately it's rarely enough.