Jeff Wayne’s musical version of War of The Worlds Live on Stage @ The O2 Monday 29th November
Everyone has their guilty pleasures, a song or album known and loved since the age of 12. But those pleasures do not always stand the test of time, and if someone were to respond to this claiming Wannabe to be the greatest song ever written, you will know what I mean.
For me, it started with midnight raids of my uncle’s vinyl collection at the age of 11, finding and falling in love with such gems as Bruce Springsteen’s The River and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. But a child’s imagination is susceptible to fiction, be it in film, picture or text. As I flicked through the collection one night I came across a vinyl sleeve that blew my mind. Pictures of giant alien robots and massive explosions covered the album, and sprawled along the top was the title; Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds. When I played the record, I was so engrossed in the story my enjoyment mirrored that of watching a horror/thriller movie, with certain compositions literally sending shivers up my spine. I was hooked.
Since then I have read H.G. Wells’ novel, listened to Orson Welles’ radio broadcast and played Jeff Wayne’s album countless times, but never did I dream of witnessing any form of live performance, let alone one which consisted of a retelling in both acting and music. When the tour came last year I was almost in tears when I was unable to go. When it was announced that the tour would be coming back in November, I was like a child anticipating Disney Land.
With the weather being so treacherous, i made sure I left with time to spare, and even though my train detoured to the wrong station, I was in my seat with popcorn and a beer with 20 minutes to spare. I had no idea what to expect, due in part to my purposeful avoidance of any footage on YouTube or other such resources. But even as people were taking their seats, and the house lights still shone, there was some strange activity on stage. A small set of rustic patio furniture sat at the forefront of the stage, and two characters (male and female) seemed to have begun the performance. The gentleman had a large telescope on a stand and another pocket-sized one which he kept whipping out to stare into distance. His lady companion was intrigued and looked to be hanging on his every word. When the lights went down and the orchestra was seated, Jeff Wayne came on stage to rapturous applause. He took his place at the conductors podium, and the characters reappeared. They played out a scoreless scene in which they viewed strange lights coming from Mars via the telescope, excited about its possible cause, all the while dismissing possible alien life as simple fairytale. But when the skies continued to flash, and the weather changed, the worried couple fled to safety, unsure of what was occurring. This entire intro or prologue was completely new to me, and set the scene perfectly.
Without further ado, The voice of Richard Burton bellowed the opening monologue, while both a computer generated image of Burton and a back drop of animated footage of the strange mars activity rolled. The Eve of The War began, with that instantly recognisable string section’s three strums. The crowd was enveloped in the music, and all the band had as support was the animations on the screen above. When Justin Hayward walked on stage for his first vocal performance of the night, he was met with crowd delight. his voice sounded almost identical to the album, truly showing that the Moody Blues singer has not lost his touch.
When the song ended, I got goosebumps. The second track, Horsell Common and The Heat Ray, was my personal favourite. When I was younger I would sit beside my uncles record player with headphones on, more terrified than any horror movie could make me, as the eerie bass was met by the unscrewing of the cylinder, a scraping sound so chilling that on some occasions I would have to turn it off. As the song continued and built in suspense, The stage came to life. Beams of light would shine on the crowd and flash in sync with the sound of the heat ray, and as it burned flames arose from the front of the stage to signify the carnage. The next guest of the stage was now set to appear, as The Artillery Man and The Fighting Machine began, when Jason Donovan (yes, THAT Jason Donovan) appeared with his rifle, and began the famous dialogue with Burton’s journalist character. The stage came to life again, and as if from nowhere a giant Tripod replica now towered above the stage, its bright green eyes flashing to Alien calls of “Ulla”. It was literally breathing fire as the Heat Rays body count rose, and with the protagonist now entering London and meeting a line of Artillerymen with cannons, the explosion sprung to life with sparks bouncing off the giant Tripod on stage. When the commotion died down, the concert entered another of its well-known sections as the journalist has thoughts of his beloved fiancée Carrie in London. Justin Hayward reappeared to sing the much-loved Forever Autumn. A beautiful additional effect during this performance was the gentle raining of autumn leaves on the front rows of the crowd. The first half was capped off with Thunderchild, featuring another of the original cast (the first being Justin Hayward), Manfred Mann’s Earthband vocalist Chris Thompson playing The Voice of Humanity. The song, along with the addition of Thompson, fantastically portrayed the attempt of public escape via a steam boat called Thunderchild being thwarted by the re-emergence of alien tripods, laying waste to the boat and its many passengers (one of which is thought to be that of our protagonist’s fiancée, Carrie).
Intermission came and went in the blink of an eye, and as the show re-started, the stage was lit in blood-red and dry ice flowed like a river. The Red Weed began, as an on-screen depiction of the aforementioned growth was shown multiplying and covering city streets and fields with maroon vegetation.The song is almost deceptively peaceful considering the context, as if we are to accept our demise with grace due to the speed and ease in which we are conquered. As the song reached its climax, in the midst of the dry ice lay a motionless figure on stage. As he began to stir, it was apparent the character was that of Parson Nathaniel (played by Rhydian of X Factor fame) dressed in a torn priests uniform and equipped with a cross. I was skeptical about how Rhydian would fill the shoes of the original Nathaniel, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, so I watched with scrutiny. Such prepared criticism was cast aside immediately as he bellowed his lyrics, contrasted well by Atomic Kittens Liz McClarnon playing his wife Beth. I was so impressed with how much Rhydian gave to his performance, both as an actor and vocalist, that the collection of the tracks Parson Nathaniel and The Spirit of Man were quite possibly my favourite part of the entire show. This was topped of with an amazing explosion, synchronised with the music, visuals and effects, to depict the demise of Beth, not to mention her reappearance as a ghost only to fly into the rafters!
Part 2 of The Red Weed closed off this part of the story in similar fashion to the opening, and Burton’s narration emerged to introduce the next set of events. The journalist is met with a brief confrontation at gunpoint, only for both parties to realise they recognise each other. The Artillery Man was back for Brave New World, a song showing the deteriorating mental state of humanity in the wake of such destruction. Jason Donovan was in fantastic form as he not only played the part of the now eccentric soldier with immense quality, but nailed the vocals emphatically, specifically the extremely high notes of the chorus when he sings “We’ll start all over again”.
As Dead London wound down the show, the humongous Tripod on stage played its part well by simulating its slow death in a hail of smoke and malfunctioning lights. During the Epilogue The cast came back to applause, the loudest of which was bestowed on Jason Donovan and was truly deserved.
What i didn’t expect was the second Epilogue aka NASA, which showed camera footage of mars from probes feeding to NASA headquarters, which was depicted on stage by a NASA employee character at a work station, communicating to other stations with different feeds. The camera signals start to go, until one image picks up a flashing green spurt from the surface of Mars, identical to that at the beginning. The work station then explodes and the venue goes dark.
Clearly the above shows how much of a fan I am of the work of Jeff Wayne regardless of the Live on Stage show, but the musical completely surpassed my expectations. Initially all I cared about was seeing the music live, but the production value injected into this show is enough to entertain anyone, newcomer of fan. With great acting and singing performances from collaborators old and new, exceptional visuals and impressive stage props, the War of The Worlds Live on Stage show is nothing short of spectacular. Upon witnessing this event you will no doubt be contemplating the following; the chances of anything coming from Mars are a lot less than a million to one.