For those of a certain age, Jeff Wayne’s remarkable double LP rock version of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion genre-establishing novel, The War Of The Worlds, was a game-changing event. Not an Opera, not a musical, not a rock concert – this was something else. A gripping story, an lush, exhilarating and energetic score, and a superb cast, led by the one and only Richard Burton. His mellifluous tones were enough on their own to attract the attention of a generation; Wayne’s music enthralled the children of that generation.

Now playing at the Dominion Theatre is a rehash of a staged production of Wayne’s work which has toured the world and seen much much better days. This is not the original version (of anything); it is a new version described thus in the programme:

 

This is by no means a smaller version of what has been seen in the arenas, but a brand new production designed specifically for the stage…Theatre-goers can also expect plenty of surprises along the way, with a host of dazzling new special effects, choreography and a purpose built set from entertainment architects Stufish, all with sound that will engulf the audience. Then there’s the small matter of a brand new Martian Fighting Machine, unlike anything seen before in the West End.

Apart from Liam Steel’s classy choreography (for the very first time one wondered how a ballet of this great work might score with the public), there is nothing about this new production which is deserving of praise. Bob Tomson’s “direction” leaves no stone unturned in trivialising and debasing the potential of Wayne’s score.  At no time is there a sense of terror, of mounting fear, even foreboding. Tension is painstakingly removed from every situation.

Cast members wander aimlessly around the stage and adopt stock stoic expressions that are, essentially, meaningless. There is no real sense of the world the Martians are invading and nothing about the way the ensemble behaves provides detail.

For the most part, the new animation is atrocious. More cutting edge animation can be found in the originalThunderbirds. Foolishly, the actual alien inside the fighting machine is revealed, not in fleeting images, but in long, tiresome close-up. The dreadful design makes the Martian somewhere between a sweaty Sontaran from Doctor Who and some background, bulbous headed critter from a Star Wars cantina scene.

Then there is the “brand new Martian Fighting Machine” which is a kind of stick-insect affair with a flat, flying saucer head. It looks like an excellent project from a Primary School science and technology department, one with willing geek Dads anxious to make something out of nothing. True, it adheres to the original artwork of the original albums, but it has not sense of impressive scale. Where it should be frightening, it is faintly reminiscent of Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men, gangly and slightly ludicrous.

There are impressive pyrotechnics, and even from the tenth row of the stalls you can feel the savage heat of the various fires which signify invasion, tumult and death. But the effect is dimmed by overuse and by interval the too-close-to-the-flames feeling is boring.

Liam Neeson is not a patch on Richard Burton and, in this incarnation of the work, his contribution is rendered almost irrelevant by virtue of the staging and sound mix, both of which combine to marginalise and drown his narration. There is nothing impressive about the use of filmed excerpts featuring him, and the dull repetition of screens being raised and lifted becomes enervating. Burton’s voice, channelling his intensity and seriousness, was the backbone of the original recording. Neeson here turns out to be a fishbone, one that sticks in your throat.

David Essex, looking far more ancient thanEastenders ever suggested, is lamentably bad as the Voice of Humanity. Long gone are the days when he could impress vocally and acting was never his strong suit, so here his performance is quite excruciating. It’s a shameless exercise in opportunistic casting, bringing back someone who was crucial to the concept’s original success despite the fact he cannot do justice to any aspect of the role.

Michael Praed and Jimmy Nail are the best of the cast here assembled. Praed manages to be dignified and serious as the Journalist (and George Herbert Wells himself) despite the pantomime surroundings and Nail, in Parson Nathaniel mode, knows how to belt out a tune and carve out a memorable character from the pauses in great music. Alas, the rest of the cast are bland and utterly forgettable, if not out of their depth.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the entire proceeding is the execution of the music. Wayne himself conducts two distinct bands – The UlladubUlla Strings and the Black Smoke Band – but even with the composer wielding the baton, the score never reaches the aural glory it should. Partly, this is down to the sound design (Dan Sansom) which is overblown in the wrong ways. The unique whirring siren sound, an electronic sliver of fear, which denotes the presence of the Martians, is impossibly loud always; it should be startling, insinuating, dread making. Loudness is not a substitute for art.

But, equally, neither band plays with a precision, a rhythmic determination, which would breathe most energy into the score. There is too much elision in the production of notes, not enough solid beat. The ensemble nature of the two bands makes for some solid group playing, but the opportunities Wayne’s score offers for virtuoso individuals is papered over. Having seen this score in live performance previously, the diminution in quality here is profoundly incomprehensible.

As live theatrical endeavours go, this version of War Of The Worlds, despite the best efforts of Praed and Nail, is depressingly sad. Sitting at home, in the dark, with the original recording playing at a decent level, one will have a better overall experience than by shelling out £60 and heading to the Dominion Theatre.

Two stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.