After years of turmoil caused by politics and pandemic, nostalgia is exactly what Doc ordered. This need for comfort is assuaged by the ground-breaking Back To The Future: The Musical which resides in the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End. Utilising every piece of theatre magic that they can find, the creative team have outdone themselves in creating a completely immersive experience from Hill Valley store signs in the lobby to music from 1955 radio station playing during the intermission. Like Marty McFly, the audience cannot escape 1955 until the allotted time.
Anyone dithering about whether to see this show needs to hurry before the only way to buy tickets for this musical is if you go back in time
Marty McFly (Will Haswell) our protagonist who - like every high school kid at 17 - is struggling to fulfil his dream and with parents that disappoint him; his mother, Lorraine Baines (Rosanna Hyland), drinks and his father, George McFly (Cameron McAllister) still gets tormented by his high-school bully, Biff Tannen (Aidan Cutler). His friendship with Doc Brown (Roger Bart) who is the one bright spot in poor Marty’s life. When testing a new time machine, Doc decides to ignore all health and safety rules when handling radioactive elements, Marty then ignores Doc’s warnings (this is a reoccurring element in the show) and hits the magic number 88 and travels back in time to the brightly coloured hell-scape that is 1955 Hill Valley. We all know the story; boy breaks his father’s fall, ruining his parents’ rather problematic first meeting and mother subsequently falls in love with boy. Not being able to return to 1985, Marty finds Doc, only to ignore Doc’s warnings once more about messing with the future, causing disruption, and sowing chaos wherever he goes. Marty’s efforts to reunite his parents pay off when to a beautifully sung rendition of Earth Angel by Joshua Clemetson, George and Lorraine share their first kiss and the future is saved. The cycle of violence is broken, and Marty returns home. In a very Tolstoyian fashion, each character gets exactly what he or she deserves; George grows a spine, Lorraine doesn’t drink, Biff becomes the spineless stuttering fool, Doc properly protects himself from radiation and Marty finally performs his song.
The performance on March 7th was almost entirely a cover cast, all very strong performers without a weak link amongst them supported by an ensemble of memorable characters. Sporting his signature orange life preserver and mullet, Haswell drives the musical forward showing vulnerability and growth over the course of the show, bringing life and a fresh perspective to a much-beloved character. Haswell and Bart bounce off each other as only old friends would do and revel in the ridiculousness in some moments, embracing some of the more comedic elements to their full extent which allows the audience to appreciate the moments fully, before the pair suddenly change track entirely to engage with the heaviness of the situation. The pair’s ability to bring a touch of lightness into serious scenes, is refreshing especially in cases where a lot of information is being imparted, which doesn’t detract from the scene itself. Bart slides into Doc Brown’s skin comfortably and masterfully switches between kooky professor and man confronted with his own hubris and mortality, epitomised in a tear-jerking rendition of For The Dreamers that strikes at the message at the heart of the musical. Bart’s portrayal is new without compromising the source material and does justice to the character of Doc; nostalgic enough for fans without being a replica of Christopher Lloyd’s portrayal. There is no comparison to be made. The man is a character unto his own. Roger Bart is Doc Brown.
Like his son, George McFly has a difficult character arc to incrementally portray, and McAllister handles the challenge with thoughtfulness and skill that gives the audience even more reason to root for him in his fight against Biff, pursuit of Lorraine and his self-confidence. Singing in an affected voice with an accent that brings to mind Long Island or Connecticut rather than California is not easy and never once did McAllister let the voice falter, a feat in itself. McAllister’s performance guides the audience through the arc, from the second-hand embarrassment the audience feels in the beginning to satisfaction when George finally gets the girl.
There are no words to fully or properly describe Hyland’s abilities: her singing and acting are on another level entirely. Her voice is incredibly strong and flexible, soaring above everyone and everything else, especially in the Act 1 finale, Something About That Boy which makes the song. Her acting is just as skilled, flowing and exploring the depth and varying nature of Lorraine, switching from a lovelorn girl with the hots for her son to a woman who is certain in what she wants. She utilises the full extent of Lorraine’s character in all that she does, adding some nuance and complexity to the character to the point where it seems Lorraine has stepped right out of the screen into reality. Hyland is a joy to watch and the scenes that she is in are some of the best in the musical. Hyland’s portrayal of Lorraine will be the standard by which we measure female characters in years to come.
Back To The Future fully utilises all that theatre tech has to offer, sometimes going beyond the capabilities of the technology itself. Between jokes about how there is no war and no disease in 2020; fourth wall breaks that cut off musical numbers and drive dancers offstage (Future Boy) lift the songs out of the musical narrative (Gotta Start Somewhere) and characters questioning the libretto (Teach Him a Lesson), this musical manages to laugh at itself and get the audience to laugh with it, not at it. The songs themselves refuse to stay in one place, moving between genres and styles, contributing to the timelessness of the musical. Back To The Future combines film and musical theatre tropes, like the overture which has been rarely if ever part of a musical theatre score for the past decade. Everything that the creative team has done and every decision that they have made has re-created Back To The Future film on the stage in a completely immersive experience for the audience.
Screens and multimedia have been used previously in shows, but instead of fading into the background, the multimedia in Back To The Future is liberally utilised to add to the action, demanding to be noticed and essentially to bring the Hollywood of the film to the West End. It makes the musical different, interesting and enjoyable to watch. However, the demands the creative team have put on the technology causes malfunctions. Picture this: the rain is pounding, time is inching closer to the lighting strike that Marty needs to get back to 1985, the projection flips between Doc conquering his fear of heights trying to secure the cable on top of the clock tower and Marty in the DeLorean, the music is building while the minutes tick by, the car is speeding up and the orchestra, rain, thunder and flashing lights build and… the screen goes blank and a message appears ‘Please Stand By While We Adjust the Space-time Continuum’. These things happen, sometimes technology just doesn’t want to work. It’s part of the theatre-going experience and it was likely more frustrating for the backstage team than the audience. However, if these disruptions to the media are common, something obviously needs to be adjusted. Luckily, the issue was quickly resolved and apart from some balance issues where the orchestra drowned out the singers, especially in 21st Century, there were no other glaring problems.
Back To The Future is a very strong production, and regardless of its growing pains, is the start of a new direction for musical theatre. It is the musicals that change the industry that are the very best and it will not be surprising if Back To The Future becomes a staple in the West End like Phantom Of The Opera or Hamilton. Anyone dithering about whether to see this show needs to hurry before the only way to buy tickets for this musical is if you go back in time.