Well, thankfully it's not the abysmal Tim Hines version of The war of the Worlds that I'm talking about this time, but the first ever live tour of Jeff Wayne's musical version - a mere 28 years after the release of the album.
The first question was what to expect from a live performance - would it be a musical drama production, or would it be a concert? The answer is that it is a concert, but also a movie - of sorts - with a bit of musical drama thrown in.
There isn't really isn't much divergence from the classic album that I assume you're familiar with. in fact, the biggest variation comes right at the start with a prologue projected on the stage backcloth of tentacle-twirling Martian villains discussing their territorial claims (terrestrial). It seems we're in for trouble. Cue Richard Burton with that famous monologue...
And yes, I really do mean Richard Burton... sort of. Despite his unfortunate demise in 1984 - shortly after agreeing to an earlier tour which was subsequently aborted - he's back, in a career-move worthy of Hotblack Desiato. A large head overlooks the stage, and the face of Richard Burton is projected onto it, performing the narration. Or is it? Well, the voice is indeed Richard Burton's, but the face is that of another actor made up to look like Burton in his thirties. An earlier attempt with another actor and digital manipulation (Gollum style?) failed.
I'm not entirely sure the replacement succeeded either, mind you. It was a pretty static performance, which may have been down to the fact that the actor had to have his head clamped to make the recording - or it may not. Although there was an occasional eyebrow twitch or a blink, there wasn't a lot of movement going on apart from the mouth.
The stage was split in twain, with an orchestra of 48 performing in one half, the predominantly electric musicians performing in the other, and Jeff Wayne conducting from near the centre; not exactly in the centre, as there was also a mysterious ramp.
Aside from a couple of bum notes, and some dodgy mixing which I hope is remedied when a DVD is released, the musical performance was pretty much a straight recitation of the original album, so I'll concentrate on the presentation and maybe some individual performances.
One of the biggest questions before the performance was how the long instrumental passages in the piece would be kept visually interesting. It was quickly apparent that there would be little room on stage for rock-god strutting and leaping. Instead, the back projection reminded us of what was going on with mixed CGI and live footage of tripods doinq their thing and people fleeing or... er... sublimating in panic.
To be honest, I was a wee bit concerned by this. I presume that the CGI at least, if not the acted performances, are from the planned movie. However, the Martian machines occasionally appeared a bit stilted in motion and finish as well as physique, and the mix of live and CGI with filters evoked troubling recollections of Tim Hine's three hour horror.
To be fair, though, the proposed movie will be far from finished at this stage and there's plenty time to make it better. Also, last time I checked, it was supposed to be completely CGI, so some of the visual incongruities may not arise, and already there are scenes that are notably better than the Tim Hines version. The battle with the Thunderchild was one of these, though it looked closer to a dreadnought than an ironclad ram.
The live vocalists, in period costume, were inset into the back projection so that plebs in the gods (like me) could see their rendition as well as hear it. From the original recording, we had Justin Hayward and Chris Thompson, joined by new talents in place of David Essex, Phil Lynott and Julie Covington.
There were two additional items of stage furniture that made an appearance during the performance. The first, and the more impressive of the two, was a Martian tripod; a faithful reproduction (given practical size limitations) of the one on the album cover, with great feet that descended through the orchestra before the body appeared close to the roof. It was an excellent model, and pyrotechnics, lighting and some movement made it an excellent centre-piece. It seems - no, it is churlish - to compare it to the back-projection and say that it seemed a bit static, but still, spoilt by modern films and effects, that was my reaction. Especially as someone who builds models on a smaller scale, I don't want to knock the impressive achievement of the set designer: it's just a sad side effect of what we can see in films and on TV.
The second item a raised walkway the Artilleryman could run around over and pose upon made the stage pretty cluttered, but was only there for Brave New World.
The vocal roles were all played well, and the singers playing the Artilleryman (Alexis James), Parson Nathaniel (Russell Watson) and Beth, the Parsons wife (Tara Blaise) did their predecessors proud, though Parson Nathaniel betrayed his classical roots on a couple of occasions by losing Phil Lynott's rough edges.
The audience were amused between the acts when a Martians eye view of the audience was shown on the screen.
Its a good show, but probably better seen from the stalls, where the tripod can tower over you, the heat rays that sweep into the audience (tight red spot, flaring to white, then back down to red) can threaten you more personally and you can see all of the screen even when the tripod is on stage. Perhaps surprisingly, I reckon it would also be best if youre not already familiar with the album you wont find the stage show competing with your own vision of the invasion.
You have almost certainly missed your chance to see it this time around, but watch out for the planned feature film, 26-part TV series, and Spectacular Show & which it is hoped will premiere in China in time for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and then tour globally. Theres also a DVD of the current live show, expected on November 6th 2006.