Back to the Future The Musical

Book by Bob Gale, music & lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, based on the film by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
Opera House, Manchester
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There's little doubt that the future of this production is in a West End theatre and probably Broadway as well; the American writing team were sat in Manchester's Opera House on press night to oversee perhaps the most lavish and spectacular production the city has seen for quite some time.

Based closely on the 1985 film, the show has been put together by the movie's original creative team, with screenwriter Bob Gale writing the book and Alan Silvestri, who scored the film, writing most of the songs with newcomer to the team Glen Ballard (famous songs from the film—"The Power of Love" and "Back In Time" from Huey Lewis and the News plus the dance band numbers "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)" and "Johnny B Goode"—are also included).

If you've somehow managed to miss this movie for the past 35 years, it centres on 17-year-old Marty McFly whose friend Doc Brown invents a time machine built into a DeLorean car. By mistake, Marty jumps back to 1955, when his rather staid, moralising mother is a hormonal teenager—who, disturbingly, takes a fancy to the time traveller—and his father a clumsy and pathetic victim of school bully Biff Tannen.

Marty has interrupted the point in time where they met and fell in love, and if he can't find a way of getting them together, he will disappear as he will never have been born. On top of that, he has to get back to 1985 just at the point lightning strikes the clock tower to provide enough energy to power up the time machine again.

There are some changes from the film, apart from the addition of songs. Doc Brown's dog Einstein doesn't appear, so the Doc himself takes the first brief jump in time, giving the famous car its first appearance on stage, seeming to appear out of thin air. There are no Middle Eastern terrorists—it is the plutonium itself that is the threat to the Doc's life at the start, but there is no clue about where it came from—which means there is no exciting chase by angry gunmen, but this is an understandable omission.

There are moments, particularly at the start, when the plot appears to be jumping from one famous setting to the next in a way that made me wonder whether someone who didn't know the film well would be able to follow it. However, as there was a huge round of applause for every recognisable set and each time a character came out with a familiar line or gesture, I don't think that was a problem for a lot of the audience. Many of the scene transitions are very smoothly carried out, though, with an impressively synchronised combination of moving scenery, gauzes, flying and projection.

Tim Hatley's designs mimic those of the film very closely—the Doc's lab got a cheer before anyone entered—and make full use of the stage space and machinery for some spectacular changes (where do they put all this stuff between scenes?). Finn Ross's video designs add hugely to the visual effects, so that some of the scenes when the car is moving feel almost like a rollercoaster ride for the audience. Illusionist Chris Fisher's additions add that extra finishing touch, from the sudden appearance of a whole car to some very clever use of doubles to make a character appear to instantly jump from one scene to the next. Gareth Owen's sound design is very clear in the vocal range and at the bass end can actually rock the audience in their seats during the time-jump effects, but the orchestral mix sounded a bit muddy on press night.

The actors also play characters very close to the ones we know on screen to varying degrees. Roger Bart's Doc Brown is clearly based closely on Christopher Lloyd's distinctive character but with new additions, including a lot of comic asides and breaking the musical theatre illusion by acknowledging the presence of his backing dancers, both of which are very funny. Olly Dobson's Marty McFly, on the other hand, looks and sounds pretty close to Michael J Fox without being a slavish impression.

As Marty's parents, Hugh Coles takes the familiar awkwardness of George McFly to comic extremes, which delighted the audience on press night, while Rosanna Hyland is great as lovestruck Lorraine Baines and is much more convincing as the older Mrs McFly than in the film. Aidan Cutler's Biff is also just like in the film, as is Mark Oxtoby as school principal Strickland, while Cedric Neal gives a wonderfully enthusiastic performance as both floor-sweeper-turned-mayoral-candidate Goldie Wilson and dance band leader Marvin Berry. Courtney-Mae Briggs is Marty's 1985 girlfriend Jennifer.

For fans of the film, the show contains almost everything they love already with the addition of a spectacular live experience and some new songs, which are pretty good, cleverly using styles from the pop music of each era. As a musical, it has one or two minor rough edges, which wouldn't be difficult to smooth out. As a theatrical spectacle, it is enjoyable throughout with moments that are quite stunning.

But does the car fly off into the future at the end? I fear revealing that may damage the fabric of the space-time continuum.

Reviewer: David Chadderton