“Do you still remember, how we used to be…”
Producer Judy Craymer reinvigorated a whole new theatrical genre when she masterminded the ABBA jukebox hit Mamma Mia! to huge box-office success, and so proved the natural choice to steer a show featuring the back catalogue of the Spice Girls and a script by Jennifer Saunders into the West End. The resulting show – Viva Forever – is a story of a young woman who is forced to ditch her bandmates in pursuit of her reality show dreams, the mentor who is determined to exploit her in order to secure her own media career and her mother who is on hand to make sure she never forgets who she is. But it is one that doesn’t quite so much fill the Piccadilly Theatre with girl power as a sense of what might have been.
Crucially, the discography isn’t always sufficient for the task in hand of a jukebox musical. Delving into some of the lesser-known works of the Spice Girls isn’t as much as a problem (though front-loading them so is a curious choice as we have to wait a while for a stone-cold hit) as the way in which the lyrical content has to be shoehorned in, resulting in some awkward fits – ‘Say You’ll Be There’ suffers particularly here. But equally, there are moments that do work. The act 1 closer weaves together ‘Goodbye’, ‘Mama’ and ‘Headlines’ in a rather stirringly affecting manner as the three women reach crucial points in their journey; ‘Spice Up Your Life’ becomes a dazzling fiesta of a Spanish street festival; and the titular ‘Viva Forever’ is recast as a tenderly intimate acoustic ballad.
And the show’s highlight comes with the one moment that feels like it could have been taken from one of French and Saunders sketch shows as ‘2 Become 1’ is subverted into a comical duet between two hesitant middle-aged lovers. It’s witty, beautifully performed by Simon Slater and Sally Ann Triplett but with such relatability, it is ultimately a reminder of what too much of the show is not.
Part of the problem lies in the conception of a story that cleaves too closely to that of Baby, Sporty, Posh, Scary and Ginger: the group Eternity may only have four members though with its bolshiness and fearless attitudes, the model is clear. But too little attention has been paid to the characters here to make us really invest in the girls who are quickly discarded by both Viva and the show, even Hannah John-Kamen’s fine-voiced lead isn’t really developed to any meaningful degree, so the Spice comparison ends up falling short. One feels that perhaps the whole enterprise might have been better off identifying clearer water between its subject and its musical inspiration.
But also, the story rarely kicks into untrammelled life. The fascinating hints of interesting angles – Viva’s adoptive mum’s own personal history suggesting an earlier brand of feminism than Union Jack dresses and given huge warmth by the excellent Sally Ann Triplett, the relationship between the Bill Ward’s Cowell figure and Sally Dexter’s Simone representing much of the hypocrisy that women on television face (Dexter does a rather good job at combining much of the grotesqueness of Sharon Osbourne’s public persona with a touching self-awareness) – remain just hints as the main narrative fits and spurts along its unadventurous way to a climax which is strangely abrupt.
So there’s undoubtedly room to improve, but this is far from the car-crash that other reviews might have suggested. The reality show scenes look extremely good on the stage, the Dermot mickey-take is well-judged and the vanities of the judging panel amusingly illuminated; Saunders’ gift for vibrant supporting characters in Lucy Montgomery’s largin’-it friend Suzi and Hatty Preston’s hashtag-obsessed PA Minty; and the ensemble have a fresh energy, Luke Jackson’s dancing is particularly eye-catching, that helps the show along and finally fills the stage with much-needed joie de vivre in the encore.