Review: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds – The New Generation – Alive on Stage / Cert: E / Director: Nick Morris / Screenplay: N/A / Starring: Liam Neeson, Ricky Wilson, Jason Donovan, Kerry Ellis, Marti Pellow, Will Stapleton, Jeff Wayne, Chris Spedding, Herbie Flowers / Released: November 25th
We’ll assume that you’re all at least vaguely familiar with the 1978 concept album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds. It might not have been particularly cool at the height of punk, but boy did it shift a few copies. Even this writer is (ever so slightly) embarrassed to admit he bought one at the time; his hip musical edginess was clearly yet to emerge. But the record is still much loved by many people and a guilty pleasure for many more (us included). So the only surprising thing about the 2006 stage production and subsequent tours is that it took quite so long for them to get around to it. The show was a hit and returned in 2012 as Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds – The New Generation and one (or more likely, several) of the London O2 Arena shows was captured for this DVD/Blu-ray release.
It’s interesting that two of the most successful interpretations of H. G. Wells’ classic novel are Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation and Jeff Wayne’s musical; entirely audio experiences that relied on the listener’s imagination to provide the images. So a multimedia production like this is always going to have a few pitfalls to avoid. Early on it manages to walk straight into one as we see, via the huge screen, the actual Martians (not just ones in tripods) hatching their plans on their home planet. Not only is the mystery and the Martian “reveal” lost (even though you know the plot), but also it manages to contradict what we later learn about the red weed providing Mars with its colour in one of the musical’s major set-pieces. We also can’t help but notice that the best bits on the screen are animations of the original artwork from the booklet that came with the album. Some of it is spectacular and the occasionally clunky CGI of the rest doesn’t sit next to it very comfortably. We’ll also take a punt that the poster-boy Martian tripod prop was more impressive in the flesh.
The music is much as you’d expect and it’s great to see the mighty Chris Spedding (guitar) and the legendary Herbie Flowers (bass) playing the parts they recorded all those years ago. You even get Jeff Wayne conducting; although the sight of a septuagenarian dancing to the '70s disco beat of “The Eve of the War” is a bit too James Last for comfort. In fact, understandably, it is a bit dated and with all those cutting edge (in 1978) synthesisers it could have perhaps done with some rearranging for the modern ear. Unforgivably, those synths actually seem to drown out the acoustic instruments on “Forever Autumn”, although we’ll put that down to a moment of poor mixing. But some of the individual performances deserve a mention. Jason Donovan makes a brave fist of Parson Nathaniel but no one was ever going to come close to Phil Lynott’s powerhouse original. It was the definitive mad clergyman and an impossible act to follow. Jetblack’s Will Stapleton puts some old school “rawk” into “Thunder Child” (the guiltiest pleasure of all), but the most noteworthy performance comes from the Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson. His officer-type artilleryman at first seems a deliberate avoidance of David Essex’s interpretation until he goes inexplicably cockney at his London reappearance. All very odd but a real crowd-pleasing performance of “Brave New World” saves the day, almost as if it was meant to be done on stage. It’s pure charisma, superior to the original, and he doesn’t half look like he belongs in West End musicals.
Actually we rather enjoyed this. Pretty spectacular and occasionally intense, but we might take issue about the much-hyped holographic appearance of Liam Neeson. Narrating on a big screen he’s excellent, but when his hologram has to interact with the other performers you can’t help thinking they’d have been better off getting someone they could afford to have there for real. Is an absent but bona fide star better than a talented newcomer? We don’t think so. But while the production might be flawed, it’s still the only big adaptation set in Victorian Britain. Why can’t we have a decent movie in the same spirit? Steven Spielberg, we still haven’t forgiven you.
Extras: Interviews with Liam Neeson, Marti Pellow and Jeff Wayne on the DVD, plus additional interviews with the rest of the cast including Jason Donovan and Ricky Wilson on the Blu-ray version.