Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds – Alive on Stage!
Jeff Wayne, based on HG Wells’s novel
From 08 February 2016
Review by Philip Fisher
Jeff Wayne has been honing his version of HG Wells's The War of the Worlds for the last 40 years so it comes as no surprise to find that the current incarnation is incredibly smooth and slick. It also contains more multimedia elements than almost any other show that can ever have been developed for the stage.
To describe the experience as spectacular barely scratches the surface of an evening that seems to have been put together as if cost were no object and is intended to blow the mind in so many different, simultaneous ways.
Many might arrive at the Dominion anticipating a glorified rock concert of 1970s vintage spiced up by post-millennial technology.
They will not be disappointed by the combination of Jeff Wayne conducting a two-part band/orchestra. Stage right is The Black Smoke Band, an over-sized rock group of mixed vintage featuring lots of guitars but undoubtedly skilled from top to bottom. Opposite them are The ULLAdubULLA Strings, an all-female string team of equal virtuosity. The unusual mix is well-balanced with the singers thanks to cleverly constructed amplification.
They provide support to a large cast of performers led by a stream of well-known stars. Top of the billing comes Wayne's old collaborator David Essex. He still sings extremely well in support of those with larger roles led by Michael Praed who shares the narration role of The Journalist, Madalena Alberto as his fiancée Carrie and Jimmy Nail playing a pastor driven mad by events that are not only outside his control but also, he might well have been feeling, those of his lordly creator.
The music, which first saw the light of day in 1976 is all of the rock variety and stretches from arena classics including the overture, “The Eve of the War”, which just keeps coming back to remind us of its catchy virtuosity to ballads, the most famous and poignant of which is “Forever Autumn”.
Daniel Bedingfield as The Artilleryman (a role created by David Essex) offers by far the strongest voice of the night singing a song for the end of the world, “Brave New World”.
Wayne wrote his vibrant rock opera, which has been touring the globe ever since, to illuminate his vision of The War of the Worlds and the nightmarish consequences when Mars gets too hot and a small group of its inhabitants invades the Earth.
Orson Welles might have managed to persuade small-town America that the event was real with his radio version, but Jeff Wayne is not too far behind thanks in considerable part to the visual and aural special effects created by director Bob Tomson and a design team including Rick Lipson, Gary McCann, Tim Oliver and Dan Samson.
They combine everything from magnificent computer-generated images to film, models of Martians, that to be fair look rather too sweet to have the desired impact, and one of the best light shows that you could hope to see either on the rock gig circuit or in a theatre.
With the orchestra at the back of the stage, there is a relatively small area left to the actors, who first take us all back to Victorian Surrey and London circa 1898 before using physical theatre, straight acting and Liam Steel-choreographed dance that can be balletic to show the consequences of the Martian invasion.
Earlier in the review, Michael Praed was identified as taking half of the narrator role George Herbert (Wells being Herbert George). The other part belongs to Liam Neeson projected who is projected on to a large screen to describe the depravities that poor little London faced from the monstrous, fire-bombing Martians in a role taken by Richard Burton for many years. Neeson achieves a similar gravity and gravelly voice on this occasion.
H G Wells’s tale continues to have immense power over a century after it was written and is given a modern twist that is truly terrifying.
What makes the mildly self-indulgent 2¾-hour performance unforgettable is not only a well-tested and familiar score delivered by a group of popular stars but also the investment into the very latest in modern technology, ensuring that the spectacle lives up to the hopes and expectations of those willing to shell out up to £99 for top-priced tickets.
This might not be the cheapest night out in town but it will live long in the memories of those willing to take the plunge.