Despite his reputation as a forward thinking man, when Herbert George Wells published what was to become his best known book in 1898, he could never have seen what was to come, with adaptations on radio by Orson Welles and film by George Pal and Steven Spielberg, but perhaps the most instantly recognisable, and certainly the most faithful to the original narrative, is also the most unexpected, Jeff Wayne’s musical version.
Recorded in the summer of 1978, a fusion of classical strings and progressive rock opera, with a diverse cast including actor Richard Burton, The Moody Blue’s Justin Hayward, pop star David Essex, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and Julie Covington, best known for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, somehow the diverse strands pulled together to form a unique tapestry that captured the epic story of the many people affected by the Martian invasion of Earth, the journalist, the artilleryman, the parson and his wife, and confounded expectations to sell over two and a quarter million units in Britain alone.
It had long been an ambition of Wayne to bring the show to the stage, and it was in 2006, almost thirty years later, that the first tour took place, and since then it has become an almost annual event, each staging becoming more elaborate, adding new props and stagecraft, but the 2012 tour, timed to coincide with the release of a new version of the album recorded with contemporary stars such as Gary Barlow and Joss Stone, is the first to be billed as “The New Generation” with more significant reworking than its predecessors, though the changes are modifications rather than an overhaul.
The most significant change is the absence of the voice of Richard Burton, whose iconic monologue opens both the LP and the show, replaced by Liam Neeson, whose performance mostly mimics Burton’s tone and diction, possibly in order to match it to the musical cues, but he adds nothing to make the role his own, and he is certainly not an improvement, but it is likely his name is more familiar to modern audiences.
More importantly, while Neeson’s inserts should have an advantage over the animated recreation of Burton’s face as they were designed and filmed specifically for this production, they show little creativity and minimal interactivity, taking the same role as the floating Burton head in the most recent tour rather than expanding it. Worse, this lost opportunity is accompanied by the slow rise of the onstage perspex screen that telegraphs his every appearance before sinking into the floor with similar gracelessness.
Fortunately, not all the mechanics are so clumsy, and the show comes alive when the full size Martian war machine descends from the rafters during the first act. Immortalised on the original album sleeve, the tripods have lost none of their power, their march across the countryside recalling the hammers of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, but while the projected computer generated background images are the aspect that was most in need of updating, these have remained largely unchanged since 2006. The sinking of the Thunder Child is primitive and urgently needs revision and the sole image of the flying Martian machine is repeated so often it comes to resemble the oft-recycled chase sequence from Filmation’s animated Star Trek series.
The new costuming for the characters is curious, and while it is by no means a stretch to conceive of Wells being reinvented as steampunk, it is not a genre that enjoys significant mainstream recognition and so is unlikely to expand the audience beyond that which would already be coming to view the show, with the result that the top hats and welding goggles serve more to draw attention to their presence rather than enhancing the show.
Though recorded eight decades after the novel, like their inspiration the songs are of their time and should be appreciated as classics of their age, and while changes are minimal, they do nothing to enhance while distracting from what should have been left untouched – a guitar solo accompanied by an animated heat ray twirling like a majorette‘s baton, extra looped beats to close numbers, occasional bleeps as though the original album had been produced by The Human League.
Joining the cast is established and successful singer Marti Pellow who is excellent on the opening The Eve of the War, but is strained on the more mellow Forever Autumn, a song unsuited to his voice, and it is here that Justin Hayward is most sorely missed. The most egregious example of change for change’s sake is the replacement of Chris Thompson on Thunder Child with Will Stapleton, whose vocal matches the original so perfectly his presence seems redundant. Fortunately, with only two scenes and one song, the Kaiser Chief’s Ricky Wilson is by far the strongest onscreen performance, stealing the show with his Artilleryman, switching between disillusionment and fantasy, capped by a brilliant vocal in his one song towards the close of the second act, Brave New World, originally sung by David Essex.
Jason Donovan, who played the Artilleryman in the 2010 tour, is a surprising choice for Parson Nathaniel, and while he overacts atrociously, not assisted by the oversized crucifix he bears, his character a gurning madman rather than a man tortured by doubt and circumstance, his vocal is an astonishing recreation of the late Phil Lynott, justifying his continued presence in the tour, infinitely preferable to the thankfully absent Rhydian Roberts, wretched in every way imaginable when he played the part. Nathaniel’s wife Beth is performed excellently by Kerry Ellis, but she is hampered by a costume of ruffled lilac and cantilevered bosom, high heels and bling, incongruous for a parson’s wife in any age.
There are moments of undeniable power, the rumble of the first cylinder crash felt underfoot and in the vibration of the air, the plaintive and haunting Red Weed which opens the second act, the magnificent war machine as it unleashes the flamethrower heat ray, but very few of the changes can be regarded as improvements on what was released in 1978. While many regard vinyl as being as archaic as H G Wells novel, as with the many attempts to film that, why change anything when the original is iconic perfection?
The tour continues in the United Kingdom until Monday 17th December and plays Rotterdam on Wednesday 19th December, then resumes in Germany from Thursday 3rd to Tuesday 8th January