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No one would have believed…

November 30, 2010

Last night, I went to see Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds: Alive on Stage! at the Point.

For those not familiar, take a look at the video for the opening number.

I was very excited about this – I’ve been a fan of the music since I first heard it, and I was really looking forward to seeing it on stage. In particular, I was interested to see how they’d represent an epic story with Martian Fighting Machines and mass destruction in the context of stage.

Starting with the good-

The stage was mainly taken up with the musicians – on the left, the 8-man rock band, with extra synths and drums, and on the right, a mighty strings section of around 30 people. The second they put bow to string, I was enthralled. Live strings have awesome power.  Jeff Wayne conducted from the centre, and he had fantastic energy.  “Boogie” is the appropriate word for how he moved.  But I knew the music was going to be awesome. That was what I came for.

The stage effects were also excellent – we were treated to an impressive lightshow, by turns disorienting and dramatic. Spotlights ran over the crowd and flashed bright as Heat Rays lashed down (with heavily distorted screams from the guitars for each blast.) The front of the stage burst into flames and actors were incinerated in blasts of light and smoke and heat. And the party piece – a massive model Fighting Machine that spat actual fire over the heads of the players and those in the front rows, with a blast of heat you could feel from the back.

Behind and above the main stage was a wide screen which displayed an animated visual depiction of the story. Some was CG, some was a series of pencilled images with a graphic-novel-esque feel. The CG bits were great for the martians – their faces and voices were strange and disturbing, particularly with the excellent musical accompaniment. However, the CG was often also combined with filmed actors, and in this day and age not-awesome CG looks positively dodgy when beside actors. The hand drawn sections looked fantastic though, and perhaps they would have been better off sticking with them throughout. This was their main crutch for dealing with the larger-than-life parts of the story- the space sequences, the fighting machines, the mass destruction, and Thunderchild.

The narration was provided by Richard Burton and his giant CG head. Which segues nicely into the interesting-decisions-that-didn’t quite-work-out section of the review. Richard Burton’s narrative voice is awesome, and I can certainly see why you wouldn’t want to do away with it. However, with his CG head being the face of the protagonist there was a serious disconnect between the on-stage actors and the protagonist in sections where they interacted. There was an on-stage cast of 5 people, who appeared one or two at a time to sing their numbers. The actors spoke to the crowd, while the CG head (mounted to the left of the stage) turned and spoke to them. And to add to the disconnect, when actors were singing on stage, there was live footage being put up on the big screen behind, poorly integrated into the wider scene. These factors combined to make the human-acted parts seem completely seperate from the otherwise excellent sound-and-light-show being witnessed. Particularly jarring was the fact that the actor singing the thoughts of the journalist didn’t even loosely resemble The Giant CG Head.

This took quite a bit away from the suspension of disbelief – had they simply had the musicians alongside the visual cornucopia, the show would have been excellent in itself.  The performers (including Jason Donovan and that-Rhydian-chap-from-X-Factor-with-the-cold-dead-eyes-of-a-killer) would have been great in a “normal” musical theatre production, but it didn’t fit with the rest of the show.

It’s hard to suggest what might have been done to integrate it all better – but they certainly had a good budget so the only limit was imagination. Telling the story without the background screen visuals would have been very difficult, but I think that the stage and the screen could have integrated better – with some extras on the stage to fill it up, dressing the stage as an actual set rather than a stage-for-the-musicians (and put the musicians somewhere else perhaps?) and having an actual actor playing the journalist (who would also sing his parts) would have improved it for me.

Verdict in a nutshell: Awesome fun, but not as awesome as it could have been. WotW has such a high baseline of awesomeness when accompanied by Jeff Wayne’s music that I feel it could have been stratospheric with a little more ambition and originality.

And I’m just going to throw it out there: Depicting Fighting Machines through bat-signal shadow puppetry.

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