Old age catches up with us all. And it’s no different whether you’re a musician or a piece of music. Despite creaking bones and a reliance on a back catalogue that precedes even the cassette, bands like Stones, the Who and many others are still touring and playing their hits for just one more time.
They say nostalgia ain’t want it used to be. Never have so many wrinklies been hitting the road or making one last album. Today there seems to be an unceasing demand to witness living legends before they pop their clogs. Add to that list ye olde rock musical and in particular, one of the most successful of the genre, Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War Of The Worlds.
First released on vinyl back in 1978 featuring the likes of Phil Lynott and David Essex, The War Of The Worlds was just one of numerous ‘concept albums’ that married music to a classic story. It proved so successful that some 28 years later Jeff Wayne brought it to life with a live stage show. It was an instant hit and went on to tour arenas across the country and in Europe with different musicians filling the boots of the original cast.
We first got to see the show back in 2010 when it came to Brighton and were impressed with what we saw. It was a spectacle and, with its fusion of rock band, orchestra, live actors and theatrical effects, very different from the common or garden rock shows we were used to seeing.
Two years later when we saw ‘The New Generation’ version in 2012 with a new cast including Kaiser Chief’s Ricky Wilson, we once again commented on its uniqueness and said unless they’d seen it before, most people wouldn’t haven’t experienced anything quite like it. We concluded, by saying it will no doubt be packing out arenas for some years to come.
We were both right and wrong. 2014 marked the final tour for the show. And Brighton, it turned out, was the very last chance to see it in the UK. (The final show took place a couple of days later in Amsterdam)
So has it been killed off too early, or has it gone past its sell by date?
The last two years has seen a renaissance in big pop productions. Rarely does a major pop or rock act not have a big screen behind them or some kind of theatrical effect to enhance the visual spectacle of their performance. And, of course, music itself has changed significantly, too. All of which means, the unique aspects of The War Of The Worlds are no longer quite so unique and the music is two years older.
Now 71, Jeff Wayne clearly knows now was the time to call it a day on what has been his baby for the past 36 years, 36 years that must have made him an extremely rich man. After all, he’s never released a follow-up, or indeed worked on any other similar project apart from that New Generation re-recording with the likes of Gary Barlow and Ricky Wilson.
In truth, it probably couldn’t have gone on much longer, given his age and that of the two featured musicians who have been involved since the start: guitarist Chris Spedding – who played on the original recording – is now 70 and bass player Herbie Flowers is even older at 76.
Musically, despite its advancing years, you can’t really fault the songs, most of the music is instrumental and its really the music that’s been instrumental in the project’s success. ‘The Eve Of War’ the album’s stirring leitmotif is still a thrilling thing to listen to. Played by the 36-piece ULLAdubULLA Strings on one side of the stage and the 9-piece Black Smoke Band on the other, it sounds even better live.
But contrary to what you might expect, it’s the visuals where the show suffers most.
The band members are most hidden by plastic screens, only Flowers and Spedding are at the front of the stage. Slap bang in the middle, stands Jeff Wayne. In front of him is what looks like a giant iPad and 99% of the time he has his back to the audience. Whilst this is the norm for conductors at classical concerts, it’s never felt right to me. A dedicated screen, relaying images of his face would have been a good idea. But the only nod to visual interest is he changes his waistcoat for Act 2 for one that bears a red design evocative of the red weed.
The story of Earth’s invasion by Martians is told initially by an actor playing HG Wells (a new addition for 2014), but for the most part, the clunky – and at times long-winded – narrative is conveyed by Liam Neeson. From time to time we see him on the side screen, but he also appears as a life-size projection onstage. To be honest, whatever gravitas Neeson may bring (and he’s a pale shadow compared to Richard Burton’s original) having a real actor onstage would probably have been better as you feel somewhat shortchanged that Neeson himself wasn’t there in person.
Which brings us onto the acting itself. There are two main problems, first as I noted in previous reviews, it’s really jarring to see actors in period costumes, performing in front of musicians in contemporary dress. It would have made so much more sense if they performed higher up in front of the video screen. That they don’t and that all bar one scene is set on the same level, plus the fact that most of the acting scenes are extremely short, makes it feel almost like having actors was an afterthought. And perhaps it’s because they don’t get much stage time, there’s a tendency for the cast to ham it up, indeed it’s all a bit am dram, with much over acting and jazz hands.
The actors’ costumes can’t be faulted, but the make up certainly can. Shayne Ward as The Artilleryman and Jason Donovan as Parson Nathaniel both were covered with so many scars and so much blood that they looked like they were ready to take part in Beach of the Dead rather than treading the boards.
With such brief cameos onstage, there’s little opportunity for anyone to make much of a mark, Brian McFadden, for example, does little more than sing Forever Autumn, the song made famous by Justin Hayward. Now McFadden wasn’t even the best singer in Westlife, so he has no chance filling Hayward’ shoes. And just being required to stand and sing meant his performance paled in comparison to others in the cast. If anyone stood out, it was Shayne Ward, but that’s probably only because he had the biggest role. Even then, he wasn’t a patch on Ricky Wilson who stole the show last time round.
And whilst the songs – and indeed much of the music itself – now sounds quite dated, Jeff Wayne has at least attempted to breathe some new life into things by adding a brand new tune. ‘Life Begins Again’ fitted in seamlessly, sounding as dated as everything else.
Knowing when to quit is something not every pop star or Hollywood actor seems to understand, but thankfully Jeff Wayne has realised it’s something you do whilst you’re still ahead. Two nights at the Brighton Centre were proof that there’s still an audience for the show, but like its creator, most of them are in their twilight years.
Those who’ve seen little else since the last time The War of The Worlds came to town, will have no doubt left impressed by the 100 foot screen, the self-proclaimed state-of-the-art CGI (in truth, much of which looked like a five-year old video game) and the theatrical effects, which added up to a somewhat less than impressive fighting machine dispensing a bit of smoke, a few flames and some iffy pyros. Even more underwhelming was the ‘leaf drop over the audience’ about which the less said the better.
So as we bid a final farewell to The War of the Worlds, if this review sounds a tad harsh, it’s simply because the world has changed considerably over the past few years and what was once considered a spectacle, is just not any more.
Words by Gary Marlowe, photos by Images Out Of The Ordinary