Those of a certain age
(likely to be over 40) who took Jeff Wayne's
The music as it played here live is like little else - comfortably repetitive and loud as a rock concert, evoking so many memories for those who grew up with it
This is the well-known tale of the invasion of the Earth by the Martians in their 'Fighting Machines' - told through the eyes of the The Journalist (Liam Neeson on screen and Michael Praed on stage) as he makes his way through the destruction of the world (well, from Surrey through to London at least), meeting some of the people tied up in the Red Weed that the Martians have left in their wake. Wayne's anthemic rock take (recorded in 1978) mixes power ballads with rock guitar and strings that hold the narrator's story together beautifully. The music as it played here live is like little else - comfortably repetitive and loud as a rock concert, evoking so many memories for those who grew up with it, as you "thrup" along with each beat, strum and bash on the drums (even though this is ostensibly a reinterpreted version).
To make it 'West End-fit', they have clearly focused on Wayne and the music first and then thrown money at the rest; the size, the spectacle, the blazing lighting and pyrotechnics that fill the auditorium and "one of the starriest casts the West End has seen" (according to their own blurb, including Daniel Bedingfield as The Artilleryman, Jimmy Nail and Heidi Range as the Parson and his wife, Magdalena Alberto as Carrie and the return of David Essex, who played The Artilleryman in the original soundtrack and now plays 'The Voice of Humanity'). But the budget spent seems to have replaced the need for small details like direction, movement, diction, pitch or tunefulness. How strong your fandom of the score will directly impact how much you ignore the bizarreness of the sight in front of you - it may be better to close your eyes and just listen for much of the show.
According to the programme notes, we are meant to "sit back, prepare to be enthralled and perhaps even terrified", watching things "unlike anything seen before in the West End". So apparently we aren't supposed to laugh hysterically and inappropriately as most of the audience were doing for most of the time. There are too many oddities to list them all but the following are just some of the moments that induced the most laughter to give you an idea... The reveal of 'The Martian' that resembles a prop more suited to the William Hartnell episodes of Doctor Who. The video of Liam Neeson's narration (and it is just a video by the way, not the 'hologram' promoted) flies up, down and side to side with his eyes possibly staring at an auto-cue rather than us, like the annoying friend who keeps popping up at your elbow. The Performance Art student style "movement" that is used to fill the long periods of un-narrated music to represent anything from the Red Weed, to dying, to staring at the Martians, with very similar, comically over-exaggerated moves. The flying of the actors - superimposed with film projections of them replaced by mannequins - to show them dying.
And the performances are generally substandard. I can't recall a single performer getting through their song without at least cracking a note (especially Michael Praed croaking his way through Forever Autumn, with 'leaves' falling in the auditorium to take your mind away from the voice, and the backing for David Essex increasing in volume to cover the fact that he can no longer reach the high notes of yore). Any acting is little more than reading, backed up by large arm waving and exaggerated facial gestures. It all means that laughter was indeed the most common reaction of the night. It's absolutely hilarious at times but I'm not sure it should be - though if they meant to make it this bad, then they are masters of irony and they got me there!
Director Bob Tomson lists his experience as mainly being in out of town theatres, as well as being an actor, writer and a university and college lecturer - not to mention a friend of producer Bill Kenwright - yet it seems to be a light background when taking on such a big production. There's little to no direction here - other than some basic blocking - and no assistance given to what is a talented cast that should be giving great performances. It doesn't just lack subtlety, it seems to have banished such an idea from the rehearsal room. There is so much unnecessary gesticulating, gurning and cliché on stage that it would be accused of dumbing down if this was on the BBC.
It makes for a lot of fun - laughing at rather than with (for no laughter should be evoked from the story at all) - but even as a stalwart fan myself, who has achieved the ambition of hearing it live, by the time Jimmy Nail gives the weirdest demonstration of 'mad acting' and shows that the strength in his voice left him a while ago, my patience had finally worn thin. Of course it is worth seeing it for this short run, if you have up to a hundred quid per seat to achieve your own ambition. Personally, I had had enough by the end - my enjoyment only bolstered by listening to the music rather than having to endure watching this very strange visual experience.