War Of The Worlds – or as it should more properly be called Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds – is a juggernaut that just keeps rolling along seemingly becoming grander and more spectacular as it does so. A cancelled tour has been replaced by this video version from 2012 which is currently having a forty eight hour outing on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Shows Must Go Online website. So it’s a case of blink and you’ll miss it, though with everything being thrown at it bar the kitchen sink that’s unlikely. It sounds as though I’m just about to go into a critical rant about the excess of it all but (whisper it) I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The show is built on the back of the 1978 concept album – something which was often scoffed at and reviled at the time as pompous and overblown… but who’s laughing now? It’s actually much closer to H.G. Well’s original novel than has often been the case with other adaptations, with most of the characters and incidents intact. The parallels of an alien force invading and spreading destruction also gives it a contemporary feel in pandemic 2020. The musical motif which begins the whole piece and recurs throughout has become as iconically referential as the shark theme in Jaws. It’s pulsating staccato notes contain echoes of Beethoven’s Fifth and Holst’s Mars and cannot fail to stir an emotive response (I’m still humming it now, as I write). The stirring excitement of the first half during the actual invasion gives way to a more muted section in Act Two. Hollywood’s penchant for a shoot ‘em up climax is eschewed in favour of the more low key but probably more effective ending of Wells’ original which I won’t spoil by revealing here.
No expense seems to have been spared in this production which takes place in the cavernous reaches of the O2 Arena. For a start there are the 45 musicians separated into the Black Smoke Band and the Ulladubulla Strings. Separated by a walkway both halves are energetically conducted by Jeff Wayne himself. The big USP is that the star turn of the piece does not even put in a live appearance. Liam Neeson as the narrator is present on film only and on several occasions as a 3D projected hologram which can interact with the live performers on stage. On a TV screen this unfortunately goes for nothing but must have been quite a sight in actual performance. Sometimes Neeson’s measured tones are drowned out by the music but the live performers are a lot clearer. These include Ricky Wilson as a hopelessly idealistic Artilleryman driven half mad who recommends building underground to escape the ravages of the Martians and Jason Donovan as Parson Nathaniel, a priest having an existential crisis. I fully anticipated hating the latter, but I have to admit he was actually quite good and his duet with Kerry Ellis’s Beth was one of the highlights. Marti Pellow gets to do the big number “Forever Autumn” which is a great song but actually does little to advance the narrative.
But, in the end, it’s all about the special effects and they are plentiful and mostly spectacular with a heavy emphasis on fire and smoke. An appearance by one of the gigantic fighting machines (35 foot tall) complete with deadly heat ray is a real coup as is the apparent levitation of a character into the upper reaches of the arena. A huge screen forms a backdrop and displays projections of the invading machines striding across rural England (shades of Gerald Scarfe/Pink Floyd here) and the creeping menace of the Red Weed. I could have done without the rather silly shots of the Martians themselves – part of the power of their menace is that they should stay hidden from view. All of this is captured by 23 cameras so that not a moment is lost for those of us not actually there.
So, yes, it is definitely over the top but sometimes that is just what you need. I’ve spent any number of days now looking at low budget, black box productions which are just as valid as the thousands which must have been spent on this production and sometimes just as brilliant in their own way. After all variety is the spice of cliché… and yesterday was just one of those days when I needed a bit of excess. And, boy, does War Of The Worlds deliver in that particular sphere?
War Of The Worlds is available briefly from The Shows Must Go On website – click here
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