“I can’t believe people were sat there as if it was any other evening”
You have to love the creative process that ends with the thought ‘we need Jimmy Nail’, but Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds really isn’t like any other show. A quick glimpse at the casts of previous arena tours, of which there have been many, gives a bit of insight as to their mindset – (former) pop stars like Westlife’s Brian McFadden, Jason Donovan and Atomic Kitten’s Liz McClarnon, reality show offcasts like Rhydian, even the Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson – now a judge on The Voice – has got in on the act. And now The War of the Worlds has landed at the Dominion Theatre and the casting has gotten no less random.
This time, I think someone came across a copy of Now 51 in a charity shop and so we have Daniel Bedingfield and former Sugababe Heidi Range making their West End debuts, alongside original cast member David Essex (whose character is naturally named The Voice of Humanity), Michael Praed and Madalena Alberto who, as per the poster, has the ridiculous snub of being the only one not to get a headshot (though she will be used to billing controversies in this theatre by now). And then there’s Jimmy Nail who at 61 gets Range, 32, as his wife…, it all makes for an oddly compelling though deeply strange affair.
For the uninitiated, of whom I was one, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds is a 1978 prog rock concept album, adapting the HG Wells story of the same name, and currently ranks as the 39th best-selling album of all time in the UK. So of course it has been adapted into its various touring incarnations in capacious arenas and then further retooled into this stage version but that doesn’t ensure it is a theatrical success, not at all. Instead, there’s an array of disparate elements on show which sit awkwardly with each other and never mesh into a cohesive whole, all overseen by a holographic figure of Liam Neeson flatly narrating the story.
Wayne conducts his band, augmented by a string orchestra, on floating platforms; the soloists waft around the stage in isolation, even when singing together; a mishmash of videos and projections play – historical film stock clashes with footage filmed specially for this (though not featuring anyone actually on stage), half-decent CGI is undermined by generic splodges of what looks like a screensaver and worse, a chronically bad, arthritic robot prop which recalls nothing so much as one of The Tripods from my 80s childhood which thoroughly undermines any menace that might have been coming (not to mention the alien that looks like a rotting lettuce leaf, never underestimate the power of the unseen).
Perhaps conscious of the need to put on more of a conventional ‘show’, director Bob Thomson has introduced a 12-strong ensemble but not even they can save the impending apocalypse. For after most of them are killed early on by the aliens through the medium of interpretative dance and fire effects, they have to get right back up and flail again, more than once. By the time they become the dancing embodiment of a creeping red weed in the second half, you feel it is too much of an indignity, their efforts sadly just not registering in what is essentially a bombastic and soulless rock concert with dodgy sound levels.