War Of The Worlds

I, like a generation around me, grew up with Jeff Wayne’s hauntingly powerful War Of The Worlds concept album. Everything about it, from the opening three notes, to the cover artwork is iconic. Moving. Powerful. And for many, it is the best version of H. G. Wells’ original 1898 novel (save, maybe, that little upset caused by the 1938 radio broadcast in America).

The progressive rock album features vocals by Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott, Julie Covington and David Essex, with the narration provided by the commanding tones of Richard Burton. I have loved the album from my original scratchy vinyl version, through CD and now to the MP3 file I carry around on my iPod. It is, for many, sacrosanct and you interfere with it at your peril.

Lucky then, for Pip Utton, that his goal is to present the story pretty much as written, using Jeff Wayne’s score as a backdrop.

The opening is surprisingly exciting. Those notes fill the darkened Baby Belly Caves with an impressive richness, which makes the audience audibly gasp. We are all here for the same reason – and this is our rallying call. Utton takes to the stage, and begins with ‘No one would have believed’. The performance continues as a mixture of the dialogue, song and Wayne’s soundtrack.

Why then, does it not work? Well, it could, but there are a few major flaws. Firstly, Utton, whilst a good performer, does not have the gravitas of Burton, nor the vocal abilities of Haywood. Particularly in the upper register, Utton’s vibrato is slightly too exaggerated, and unfortunately it just grates a little. The second problem, and one that could be potentially be fixed, is the audio mix. Whenever Utton is delivering dialogue, Jeff Wayne’s music is faded – meaning even the “Ulla” leitmotif is nothing more than a whisper. Only when Utton breaks into song does the music track volume rise. As Utton is mic’d, I am a lost to understand why the music could not be left at the same level throughout – pretty much the way the album works when Burton is narrating. It would also heighten the dramatic tension if Utton is occasionally struggling to be heard over the raging battle that is going on behind him.

There are two stars on stage in this production, but the bigger of the two is occasionally sidelined by the mixing desk.

Reviews by Pete Shaw

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The Blurb

Jeff Wayne's musical version of HG Wells' 'The War of The Worlds', abridged and performed, in a stunning new adaptation for stage, by Pip Utton. 'The Doyen of Fringe one-man shows' (Daily Telegraph).