Theatre Editor Jay Darcy reviews Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds at First Direct Arena, starring Jeff Haywards, Kevin Clifton, Anna-Marie Wayne, Duncan James, Nathan James and Claire Richards.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is the stage adaptation of the 1978 album of the same name – which, in turn, is based on H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898). The novel has been both popular (having never been out of print) and influential, spawning half a dozen feature films (including the 2004 film, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise), radio dramas, a record album, various comic book adaptations, a number of television series, and sequels or parallel stories by other authors.
It was most memorably dramatised in a 1939 radio programme, directed by and starring Orson Welles, that allegedly caused public panic among listeners who did not know the Martian invasion was fictional. The novel has even influenced the work of scientists, notably Robert H. Goddard, who, inspired by the book, helped develop both the liquid-fuelled rocket and multistage rocket, which resulted in the Apollo 11 Moon landing 71 years later! So, yeah, it’s a pretty big deal.
The plot follows a Martian invasion of Earth, in which Martians attempt to turn our planet into a colony. The novel has been variously interpreted as a commentary on evolutionary theory, British imperialism, and generally Victorian superstitions, fears, and prejudices. Wells said that the plot arose from a discussion with his brother Frank about the catastrophic effect of the British on indigenous Tasmanians. What would happen, he wondered, if Martians did to Britain what the British had done to the Tasmanians?
So, The War of the Worlds is much more than a sci-fi epic, it’s a commentary of real-life, with themes still pertinent in today’s society.
Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation (or ‘version’) of the novel has enjoyed massive success. In the UK, it peaked at number 5 and has sold over 2.7 million copies here since its release. In 2018, it was the UK’s 32nd best-selling studio album of all time. Worldwide, it has sold an estimated 15 million copies.
The concert tour adaptation of the album began in 2006, and all these years later, it’s still growing strong, selling out arenas and entertaining people of all backgrounds and ages. This tour was subtitled The ‘Life Begins Again’ Arena Tour.
It’s hard to explain exactly what this show is. It began with the orchestra trickling onto the stage, each member sitting on the stage left. They were followed by the band, who sat on the stage right. After that, we were introduced to the one and only Jeff Wayne, who stood just off-centre stage, in front of the orchestra.
The show made great use of projections, with stunning visuals and video footage of the incredible main cast, which was made up of The Moody Blues’ Jeff Haywards (who sang ‘Forever Autumn’ on the original soundtrack), Strictly Come Dancing‘s Kevin Clifton, Anna-Marie Wayne (Jeff Wayne’s daughter), Blue’s Duncan James (also known for Hollyoaks, The Celebrity Circle and Celebrity Masterchef), Inglorious’ Nathan James (no relation to Duncan), and Steps’ Claire Richards (also known for Popstar to Operastar, Celebrity Big Brother and Loose Women). Academy Award, BAFTA, 2 x Tony and 3 x Golden Globe nominee Liam Neeson OBE was featured in prerecorded videos and 3D holography, whilst Callum O’Neill was featured in prerecorded videos. Quite the cast, right?
The stage design and lighting deserve particular praise. There were two screens featuring cutting-edge CGI and video content. Not too long into the first act, a 3-tonne, 30-feet-tall, fire-breathing, ginormous “Tripod” (Martian fighting machine) descended from the ceiling onto the stage. It fired real flame heat rays at the audience. Towards the end of the second act, a bridge came down, which arched over the audience sat in the stalls – one end sat on the stage whilst the other sat on the floor, behind the audience in the stalls. It was very impressive. This scene marked an important part in the story, with Clifton singing ‘Brave New World’, and the bridge made it even more epic.
Kevin also showed off his vocals in Burn the Floor earlier this year, but going by Ella’s review, he does much better under the direction of Jeff Wayne!
Another highlight was early on in the first act, when Hayward sang ‘Forever Autumn’, and Autumn leaves fell from the sky, covering the audience. It felt very immersive. Perhaps my favourite scene, though – and definitely my favourite song – was early on in the second act, when Duncan James and Claire Richards finally appeared. They sang ‘The Spirit of Man’, my favourite song from the musical.
Richards’ role was criminally underwritten; she died in the same scene that she was introduced in – yet, she still arguably stole the show. Whilst Steps are huge – they’re still selling out arenas all these years later, and I was lucky enough to see them last year – their cheesy music never let Richards show off her true potential, so it’s great to see her in a role that does (she also got to show off her vocal range in Popstar to Operastar).
Anna-Marie Wayne, too, has powerhouse vocals. She might be Jeff Wayne’s daughter, but her voice sells itself.
I did find it a little odd that the rest of the main cast were featured only in prerecorded videos whilst Clifton sang ‘Brave New World’. I wondered why they didn’t just bring them onstage to sing along with him, though I considered the possibility that they would all sing together in a later performance, so they were kept apart in this one to make their actual coming-together more impactful.
This “musical” is everything you could want in a show. I mean, it’s basically several different shows in one. Yet, it doesn’t feel overdone or over-the-top. It’s a manic masterpiece – intentionally so.
The 2022 tour Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds has now come to an end, but it will, no doubt, be back in a few years – if the Martians don’t get here first…