But still they come…! The Martians invade the West End…
Dominion Theatre, February-April 2016
When I interviewed Jeff Wayne back in November 2013, he was talking about returning to work on Spartacus, his other concept album, once the next arena tour of The War of the Worlds was over at Christmas 2014. Instead, his classic 1978 album has received yet another staged version – this time eschewing grand arenas in favour of the far more intimate surroundings of the Dominion Theatre. The Tottenham Court Road venue was previously home to We Will Rock You, and further back, the SF musical Time which featured a hologram and a 1970s pop idol… something that resonated to an extent last night at the press showing of The War of the Worlds, which had a large number of David Essex fans of a certain age in the audience!
For those who know the album(s) inside out and backwards, a brief note: this is The New Generation version, but taken to a further level. It’s Neeson not Burton narrating, and many of the extra pieces of script that Wayne added for the 21st century version are present. Musically, because it’s a smaller band, there have been some tweaks, but it inclines more to the Neeson than the Burton score – and there’s one significant key change (Thunderchild is dropped about a third from its original pitch, which leads to a slightly longer than normal section at the end as the band have to get back into D Minor for the finale!). The extras that Wayne added for the last stadium tour are mostly here – Life Begins Again sets words to the theme on the 2nd LP/CD that was previously only melodic, and that’s reprised at the end – although Wells himself isn’t part of it. There’s also a new ensemble song, more on which below.
What’s very clear is that the music wasn’t going to be compromised for this latest version. This is – with the odd extra bar to accompany a longer than anticipated entrance – Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds in concert, rather than reworking the score to form the basis for a stage production. Director Bob Tomson has treated it more like a ballet in that respect, often silently illustrating the narration or the thrust of the song – dancers writhe sinuously for the Red Weed, for example. The multimedia stadium tour has been the template: much of the footage used in that is played on giant screens which are either behind the band, or projected onto white cloths that are dropped in various combinations. (These can be a little distracting – some streamlining of this aspect would aid the production considerably.)
Rather than being “on stage” as he was for the stadium tour, Liam Neeson’s Journalist pops up in various places (leading to one person commenting last night that it was like a game of Where’s Wally!), and a lot of the clever trickery that went into his performance is sadly lost. I wonder if consideration was ever given to having an on stage narrator… that would have certainly set this apart from any other version.
As far as the staging goes, every trick in the theatrical arsenal is used: there’s fire, items drop on to the audience (I’m sure I’m not the only one who looked up in Forever Autumn at the line “The rain falls softly…” and wondered if I was about to get wet!), the Martian War Machine looms over the stage, lights, Kirby wire flying (although I’m afraid Beth’s exit to heaven didn’t quite have the gravitas it needed), and portable towers that can be used for shore to ship or dream sequences creating Brave New Worlds. The company are put through their paces: there’s very little time when they’re not on stage in various outfits, singing, dancing and much more. The only bit that really didn’t work was the appearance of the Martian creature, which I’m afraid looked less convincing that Nigel Kneale’s hands inside the Creature in Westminster Abbey in The Quatermass Experiment in 1953!
Michael Praed plays what in other productions has simply been the Voice of the Journalist, but here is much, much more, and is the standout performance of the evening. He’s on stage for the vast majority of the time, and is excellent at both the dramatic and musical parts – Forever Autumn (which is reprised at the start of the second half) is heart-rending. The Journalist’s relationship with Carrie is extended in this version – unlike in the original, all the characters appear to know each other before the invasion (and have a song about it), so a separation is required to get her to London and thence the steamer out of the country – and he really becomes the lynchpin around which the story unfolds. It also helps that he’s convincing as a slightly younger version of Liam Neeson’s character so there’s not a disconnect between him on stage and then the projected narration.
Daniel Bedingfield’s Artilleryman is suitably blustering in the songs, although he wasn’t as commanding a presence in the various pieces of dialogue as perhaps the role needs. David Essex plays the Voice of Humanity, or, in the stage version, what you’d guess would be the local pub landlord. He is given various pieces of business throughout the story to emphasise how the “common man” is affected by the invasion. He gets top billing, but feels far more part of the ensemble than a star role.
Jimmy Nail was terrific as Parson Nathaniel, a hellfire preacher of the old school, giving the part the over the top performance that the music demands. I really was hoping that he’d be put on the wire and pulled up into the mouth of the Martian…but I guess that might be a step too far! Sugerbabe Heidi Range was convincing as Beth, even if it felt occasionally as if her microphone wasn’t quite correctly positioned, losing some of the clarity that was there the majority of the time. Madalena Alberto is equally good as Carrie, good casting both dramatically and vocally with Praed.
Jeff Wayne and the musicians deserve medals for not being fazed by everything that goes on in front of them (or in Wayne’s case, behind, and sometimes immediately adjacent to him). The heat from the flames could be felt 10 or so rows back in the stalls, so goodness knows what it was like up there! With less strings, you might have thought that some of the richness would be lost from earlier versions, but that’s not the case, and the balance between strings and band actually felt better than some other performances I’ve heard. Of the band, harpist/percussionist Olivia Jageurs deserves particular mention for such an enthusiastic performance (and clearly enjoying herself so much).
Wayne is as enthusiastic at the podium as ever (and if he ever needs a deputy, it’s one of those scores I’d dearly love to conduct!), and the new number, which comes early in the first act, is a great addition to the piece – I really hope that this and Life Begins Again will get an official release.
So far I’ve looked at this from the point of view of someone who’s seen the show grow over the years. How does it work for someone who’s never heard the album or seen the show before? The pacing probably feels odd in the second act (it would be even odder if Life Begins Again wasn’t there!) but it’s a show that grabs attention from the first few minutes, and it’s very rare that there’s not something interesting going on on stage. The ending will seem odd – it works on the album (particularly in its original LP form), but a big musical needs to end on a big musical number, which Life Begins Again could easily be. Wisely the “we are the Martians” CG prologue has been dispensed with for the stage show, and I know there’s a sentimental attachment to the epilogue, given Jeff Wayne’s father’s appearance, but it needs to go!
Verdict: The music remains the star of this show in this sometimes overblown staging, making for an enjoyable evening’s fusion of concert and stagecraft. 8/10
Photos by Tristam Kenton