THEY CAME, THEY CONQUERED
Call me a patsy and a soft touch, but you won’t find me sneezing at anything which – within twenty minutes of a deafening, blinding opening – offers me a giant flame-throwing Martian octopus, emerging onstage from a 50ft screw-top capsule with full orchestral backing. Though mind you, a bit of well-directed sneezing would have saved mankind some angst, since in H.G.Wells’ classic novel, the “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” of the invading Martians fall victim to earth’s smallest creatures: bacteria.
Which is not a spoiler, since the story which Jeff Wayne retells in his prog-rock concept album has been spooking the world since Wells published it as a partwork in 1897. It is the emperor of sci-fi tales, apocalyptic and terrifying and moral, vivid with late-Victorian doubt about imperialism, the super-race idea and the dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution. As for Wayne’s lush string-splendid album, with sections of Wells’ splendid prose narrated by Richard Burton, it has been renowned since 1978. For Buckley himself to conduct it here – not just in some concert-hall or arena but as a full-staged operatic musical – is quite a coup for producer Bill Kenwright.
And, frankly, quite a risk. There’s a 23-piece orchestra onstage (gallant players presumably dazzled and deafened by the leaping flames, laser-eyed green monsters and blackouts). There are nineteen adult performers plus at one point innumerable children; Liam Neeson in video and hologram descends from the roof to narrate. There are assorted rolling gantries, giant cogwheels, a real stumping 40ft Martian war machine with green shining eyes crossing the stage (in front of the split orchestra and the gliding conductor, and over the cast). There are constant, stunning CGI video backdrops : design is by the rock-video master Ric Lipson of Stufish.
So the risk is not of things going wrong (they don’t) but the simpler, theatrical danger that the music and design and flames and searchlights would make it just a rock video: overwhelming any possiblity of intimacy and us actually caring about the characters – George the journalist hero, his wife, a combative artilleryman, a parson, and mankind in general represented by the ensemble. Being mere humans they risk being dwarfed by the huge goings-on behind and above them. Neeson is OK because he is a huge image overhead: but Michael Praed, Maddalena Alberto and the rest, despite their solo numbers could seem too small for the big, big scale of it. Staging could have worked against our imagination, rather than for it.
But here’s the wonder: that doesn’t happen. I was swept up, involved, awed at times. The visual effects are indeed stunning (even down to coloured leaves falling on the stalls during the rare romantic ballad “Forever Autumn”). But there is always a powerful sense under director Bob Tomson that the music really is conjuring it all up: that the demonic vigour of Wayne’s orchestra is somehow making these fierce visuals happen. The attack looks exactly as one would imagine (possibly in a light fever) that it would. The choreography is strong (Liam Steel) especially in the first attack with bodies flying high aloft, helpless; and later when the Martians overwhelm the earth with the Red Weed dancers under hellish light squirm and become terrible human tumbleweeds. When the hero walks through a dead London the corpses rise, black shapes against his living solidity, to dance despair around him.
The restless backdrops – whether Victorian sepia, open skies or squirming horrors and monsters – are never allowed to overwhelm Praed, Alberto, Jimmy Nail, Daniel Bedingfield, David Essex and the rest of the human players in their various important moments: the panicking clergyman who can only see Satan’s work, the Artilleryman dreaming of an underground empire, the hero himself walking towards death. And all the time the pounding, possessed, exuberant orchestra carries us from naiveté to terror to despair to hope. I had my doubts, but this extraordinary show does actually work. And there is even a wonderfully cheeky up-to-date coda which I definitely won’t spoil. Though it might startle some science correspondents.
box office http://www.dominiontheatre.com 0845 200 7982 to 30 April