You may be familiar with the 1978 album which brought the progressive rock bombast to the words of HG Wells to tell the story of the journalist George Herbert’s encounter with invading martians threatening the Earth.
To give it its full title, ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds’ has had several years touring arenas, first with a kind-of hologram presentation of an actor impersonating Richard Burton and mouthing his narration, and more recently, with screen presence of Liam Neeson, allowing additional segments of text to be included and the plot, such as it is, to be developed further.
Don’t expect a full musical presentation here. What you do get is Jeff Wayne on stage with an all-female string ensemble and a rock band led by Chris Spedding on bass, driving through the familiar instrumental backing and synth wailing you’ll remember from that album. You’ll get Neeson’s narration, sometimes as video inserts on cloth backdrops, sometimes as full holograms.
The on-stage cast includes Michael Praed (if you’re a certain age, you will remember him as Robin of Sherwood) as the journalist, singing ‘The Eve of the War’ and ‘Forever Autumn’, the musical’s two big numbers. You have David Essex, there for nostalgia’s sake as he was the original recording’s Artilleryman, voice not quite there anymore but appearing as the ‘Voice of Humanity’ with Chris Thompson’s shoes to fill in the Thunder Child number.
The Artilleryman in this production is Daniel Bedingfield, but he was off the afternoon we saw this and we enjoyed understudy Simon Shorten’s performance instead, especially in the staging of a rather Village People-ish ‘Brave New World’, with a troupe of lads and lasses stomping around with shovels and rhythmic steps. There are leading ladies, too, with Madalena Alberto as Carrie (a much extended role from the original), and Sugababe Heidi Range in Julie Covington’s old role as the Parson’s wife, Beth.
And then there’s Jimmy Nail, as the Parson, and he overacts like crazy whole trying to sing the role the way the late lamented Phil Lynott did back then. The singing is OK, but he needs to tone down his portrayal, especially in one of the two new superfluous songs, ‘Life Begins Again’, which takes a musical coda from the original recording and develops it into a bloated number which works about as well as the intrusion of a group of candle-holding children signalling to the alien craft in Act One.
There is a bit of CGI, and a real cylinder and Martian pod, and a bit of artfully choreographed red weed, and, of course, autumn leaves. There are tongues of fire which shoot up as fireballs at alarming close quarters to the cast, and a bit too much smoke spilling over the edge of the stage.
But you can’t fault this on spectacle, and you can’t fault Wayne on his rockingly good creation.