It is testament to the power of the original story, that War of the Worlds has existed in so many different guises since it’s inaugural publication as a serial in 1897. Now it’s musical incarnation is celebrating a significant anniversary of its own, and coming to the West End for the very first time. This is a credible milestone but is it a move, you might question retrospectively, it really needed to make?
I am not casting doubt on the power of the score, which is still without question the driving force of this production. A full strings section plays in a specially designed roving stand alongside a 6 piece rock band, who can conveniently be moved seamlessly around as the set evolves around them in the course of the show. They impressively fill the the Dominion theatre with the driving power chords of a rock Opera, akin to not long departed ‘We Will Rock You’, yet the intimacy of the theatre space also allows for the tender moments in songs such as ‘Forever Autumn’, the tune you are most likely to remember from its LP release in 1978, given its chart success (reaching #5 in the UK Singles charts). Although the eclectic musical hybrid of synths, live orchestration, rock-opera and choir is less radical and surprising now than it would have been to a ’70s audience, it remains impressive but with a touch of nostalgia, pitched somewhere between a vintage epic sci-fi film soundtrack and an early Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Whilst the music seems to benefit from the more intimate venue, unfortunately the acting suffers from being scaled back from its inaugural arena tour. The few scripted scenes between the musical numbers are declared rather than spoken, rendering them forced and lacking in feeling whilst the choreography is dance-like and strangely ritualistic. Seeing it in close up, it doesn’t show up well. As the towns are engulfed in flames by the martians green laser beams, characters writhe in synchronised agony with the pyrotechnics, an effect which only serves to make the sufferings and the horror feel distant, strange and even inhuman. Far more moving were the inserts of the original text itself, read as a voice-over by Liam Neeson, who plays the Journalist’s older self. His presence, as a projection on a drop down screen, is a calming centre-point in the calamity of sound, giving a human voice to the original source, and binding the two together beautifully. Credit must also be given to the younger members of the cast, who whilst doing little more than singing “WEEOOOO” and running about, did add an innocence and a sweetness to the melee without it being simpering or sickly, a feeling those who have seen the 2005 Spielberg WOTW film may relate to.
The third part to the stage show is the special effects, which once again have been brought along from previous arena tours and scaled back where necessary. It must be appreciated at this point, that West End shows do not have the same budget as block buster films, so the ‘Special CGI’ is more akin to early 2000s video games than any kind of modern sci fi epic, and the ‘live on stage’ martian’s could be straight out of Classic series Doctor Who. That being said, upon making these allowances, the effects are quite creative and fun however unless you are very young or very, very sensitive, it is going to be only fun that you experience and not a shred of fear for the future of humanity. Sorry, Martians. Once again I found myself asking, would this be more convincing on a larger scale? Or perhaps, like some of the greatest horror films, just leave it to the imagination to do the work and do away with creaky props altogether. The mesmorising green lights from the start of the show, beamed around the auditorium as the threat descended, were infinitely more ethereal than anything the props department produced.
The show is certainly an enjoyable spectacle, with come creative ideas and an enthusiastic cast to realise them, however, I don’t believe it has fully outgrown its original concept as a concert, a showcase for the musical score. Although plenty has been added, in my mind it is not quite enough to make it a fully fledged, all-singing-all-dancing musical in its own right and this is why alongside London’s world renowned West musicals, it will continue to feel slightly out of place. I sincerely hope that the show’s prominence will help it to reach new audiences and perhaps encourage a renewed appreciation of both the score and the original novel, behind it, which will continue to inspire for generations to come.