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Review: Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’ in Concert

A Martian Fighting Machine opens fire on stage

A Martian Fighting Machine opens fire on stage (Photo by Roy Smiljanic , courtesy of thewaroftheworlds.com)

No-one would have believed, in the last years of the 1970s, that a musical interpretation of a science-fiction classic would transfer successfully from a popular vinyl recording to an astonishing audio-visual stage spectacular. But, since its initial release in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s version of HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ has not only enjoyed album sales totalling 15 million, and produced two international hit singles – it has also become a hugely successful stage event.

Launched as a live spectacular in 2006, the show has since toured the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The latest performances were billed as “The Final Arena Tour”, with last night’s show in Brighton being the last UK date – and it went out with all heat-rays blazing.

Jason Donovan as The Preacher

Jason Donovan as The Preacher (Photo by Roy Smiljanic , courtesy of thewaroftheworlds.com)

Jeff Wayne himself conducted the 36-piece ULLAdubULLA Strings and the 9-piece Black Smoke Band, and was greeted with huge cheers from the audience as he appeared on stage. Mixed live in Surround Sound, the music achieved the sort of overwhelming, all-consuming blast you’d really like to pump from your own music system, if only the neighbours wouldn’t object, yet it never overwhelmed the singing. Every word was clear, and sung with total commitment by a cast which included Jason Donovan, Brian McFadden, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Shayne Ward. Each of them took the familiar songs (and one new one) and made them their own, often while running about on the stage or climbing up and down structures.

Meanwhile, Liam Neeson as the narrator showed up on the main screen, on a smaller screen to the left of the stage, and in an amazing 3-D hologram in the middle of the stage. He even appeared to interact with other cast members – at one point he seemed to hand Shayne Ward’s artilleryman a glass of water, and later he lashed out at Jason Donovan’s preacher, who reeled from the supposed blow. Neeson’s delivery of the narrative was superb – he couldn’t quite out-gravitas Richard Burton, but it was a close-run effort.

Across the back of the stage, CGI, film and animation illustrated the story on a 100-foot-wide screen. We saw a Mars surface that, just for a moment, looked like something a NASA rover might have beamed back – until the squid-like Martians turned up, making their way to their citadel to slowly, but surely, draw their plans against us. Among the cutting-edge graphics, the images included (and were influenced by) the original album artwork, and the whole thing perfectly complemented and enhanced the music – a “silent movie” for the 21st century.

Shayne Ward as The Artilleryman

Shayne Ward as The Artilleryman (Photo by Roy Smiljanic , courtesy of thewaroftheworlds.com)

As the invasion began and flames roiled across the screen, strobe lights flickered over the audience and real flames licked the edge of the stage. A 35-foot high Fighting Machine appeared above the orchestra, and shot flames toward the stalls.  The heat was palpable even from the balcony!

In addition to the new song (words added to a section of linking music), there was also a new character, in the form of HG Wells himself. Played by Callum O’Neil, and aging from 33 to 76, he was there to remind the audience of the Imperialist analogies of his original work.

All in all, it was a breathtaking, spectacular show and, although there’s only one performance remaining on this particular tour – in the Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam – it seems unlikely that this is the last venture from ‘The War of the Worlds’.

Another Martian invasion in 2015? Here’s hoping!

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2 Comments

  1. What an absolutely top notch review! Vividly charged images and emotions so eloquently described it made me feel like I was there in person! Such a classy style of writing – really packed a punch and left me thinking about it afterwards. Well done Karen!

  2. I was there, in the Heineken Music Hall, december 16th and it was breathtaking good. Your review did me reluve the concert again… Tnx

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