If you have never heard Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds concept album, then stop reading this, and download / buy it straightaway. For more than one generation, it’s been a seminal piece of science fiction, featuring the voices of Richard Burton, Justin Hayward and David Essex, among many others. Wayne prepared a live version of the show a few years back, and then (as discussed in his interview here), gave the whole score an overhaul for The New Generation. That led to a revised tour a couple of years ago, and during the promotional tour for the release of the home video version of that, he announced that the Final Tour of The War of the Worlds would focus even more on some of the imperialist analogies in the piece.
And he meant it. Even if you know The New Generation album inside out and backwards, there are plenty of surprises in the latest (I refuse to believe it’s the Final) tour, starting with three completely new sequences slotted throughout the piece that feature H.G. Wells himself, played by Callum O’Neill, at various key points in his life. They’re narrative pieces, and suggest that the writer would have seen many correlations between the events of the 20th century and his own writings in the book.
That’s not the biggest new addition though: we get a new song (follow that link for a preview). Okay, technically, we get words added to one of the prevalent musical motifs of the second disc, but Wayne uses this to feature all of his on-stage cast, and even the only-on-screen presence of Carrie, the Journalist’s fiancée. He’s also added a counterpoint melody for Carrie and Parson Nathaniel’s wife, Beth against The Voice of Humanity, the Journalist and the Parson, which then goes into some close harmony work (which is slightly reminiscent of another contemporary concept piece, Mike Batt’s The Hunting of the Snark). Life Begins Again works well as an addition to the piece, coming out of the Artilleryman’s Brave New World (or, as it sounded last night consistently, Brave World).
Wayne and his team have also upped the ante with the multi-media aspects of the show. The CGI mini-movie with its Predator-like Martians doing their Mysteron impressions kicks off the show after the first HG piece, so it’s actually ten minutes or so before the huge D minor chords crash in to start the musical proper. From there on it’s an immersive experience: the huge screen tells the story, using and then riffing off the art from the original LP release, adding CGI Martians alongside freshly shot footage, while a giant Martian machine menaces the audience, the heat ray sending flames shooting out towards Jeff Wayne on the conductor’s podium as spotlights circle the auditorium, and leaves drop from the ceiling.
But the focal point is always the music. Wayne’s score has deservedly stood the test of time, and it’s interesting that it feels as if he’s allowed some of his musicians a bit more latitude in this version – some of the guitar riffs from Chris Spedding and Herbie Flowers felt new, and both Jason Donovan and Shayne Ward gave highly individual, and quite stunning, interpretations of the Parson and the Artilleryman respectively. The new song gives Brian McFadden as the Journalist further opportunity to shine, likewise Joseph Whelan as the Voice of Humanity. Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Beth was more proactive than some, which made a pleasant change. The balancing with Anna-Marie Wayne’s pre-filmed performance works better now than it did, although the scenes between her and the also pre-filmed Liam Neeson might have worked better on the big screen than as presented – it’s not as if Neeson’s Journalist isn’t seen that way at times (notably doing a Six Million Dollar Man like slow motion run as he decides to give his life to the Martians just those few moments too late!). My only minor quibble with the staging was the phenomenal overacting from the guy playing the NASA controller at the end, who seemed to have wandered in from the set of Mars Attacks!
There’s one more performance in the UK, tonight at the Brighton Centre, and then one in the Netherlands – but that’s (supposedly) it at least as far as live shows go. If you didn’t see it, then the inevitable DVD/Bu-ray will be well worth getting.
Verdict: A triumphant final hurrah for a fantastic piece. 10/10