Review: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds – The Final Arena Tour (London O2 Arena 13/12/2014)

Throughout this year there’s only really been one date in December I’d been truly looking forward to, and it’s one that may either surprise or cause eye-rolls across my readership, but it wasn’t Christmas; it was Saturday December 13th.

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

It should come as no surprise that I am a massive fan of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, an album that I came across almost by accident several years ago but have grown to truly adore. Seeing the live version of this awesome album has a chequered history with me personally; blizzards prevented me from seeing the 2010 show and I was determined not to let the opportunity slip again. Duly I booked some pretty good seats for the 2012 New Generation tour but I slammed a home run with my first-day booking at London’s O2 Arena – fourth row seats to the best show of the year!

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014The pre-show lunch at Nando’s was enjoyable but the anticipation was palpable – after thirteen months of patient waiting the show I’d been waiting for was minutes away. I quickly realised how good my Row D seats were; the O2 Arena is indeed gigantic and staring at the spectacle through binoculars would have spoiled the event somewhat. My frantic purchasing had been vindicated the minute I walked into the arena.

At pretty much launch time the show began with a new prequel featuring HG Wells which led into the the familiar (and somewhat appropriated from the 1998 PC game) prequel with the Martians planning the invasion of Earth. Then the stars take over and Liam Neeson’s hologram begins the famous opening monologue: “No-one would have believed…” and duly followed by the iconic opening strings of The Eve of the War that introduce the start of the invasion – though of course, the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one…

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

Act One is a truly bombastic experience exemplifying the arrival of the Martians in Victorian England; the ominous funky bass riffs of Horsell Common and the Heat Ray build up to the first true Martian attack in The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine. The highlight of this part is the arrival of the 35-foot Martian Fighting Machine on stage and the conveyance of the destruction of Byfleet though a real-life sizzling Heat Ray fired into the audience!

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

Clip from “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine” courtesy of Jake Donbavand

Act One culminates with Thunder Child, depicting the epic battle between the Royal Navy against a group of Martian Fighting Machines as the Journalist’s fiancée escapes by sea. The guest cast was superb; I’d originally been a little reserved when I heard that Westlife frontman Brian McFadden and X Factor alumni Shayne Ward and Joseph Whelan were involved but my prejudices proved misplaced as they all gave it their all with some impressive performances on tracks that are burned into my memory. Sure, the original artists from the 1970s are irreplaceable but the guests here did an admirable job, bringing their own influences and personality to the show.

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

Act Two is a considerably more subdued affair compared to the more bombastic first part – though it symbolises the hold the Martians have over Earth and the descent into madness in the face of calamity (The Spirit of Man) and of fanciful dreaming (Brave New World). The introduction to the Earth under the Martians was skilfully done, with dry ice pouring over the stage (and my seat) to simulate the encroaching Red Weed.

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

Jason Donovan reprises his role from the 2012 tour as the deranged Parson Nathaniel, and his enthusiasm and gusto is memorable; Carrie Hope Fletcher puts in an equally impressive performance as Beth, the Parson’s Wife who tries to save him from his delusions. Later on, the Artilleryman returns to explain his plan for a brave new world in the second set-piece from Act 2. Both are great pieces of music and theatre surrounded by more serene and low-key music that punctuates as the Martians take grip on Earth.

There’s a new song, presented in two portions, that is original to the 2014 tour included over the usually-instrumental end of Brave New World and Epilogue that includes the whole cast recalling how they plan to rebuild after the Martians are vanquished. I was initially sceptical (believing WOTW is certainly not broken so doesn’t need fixing) but I must say Life Begins Again proved quite the ear-worm and I approved of it’s inclusion!

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

In general terms, the music was loud, bombastic but ultimately epic from my perspective – they couldn’t get it too loud for my liking, with every ULLA reverberating through my very being. I noticed a few musical cues to the classic album that contrasted quite nicely with the more techno New Generation instrumentation. Accompanying the score was an updated CGI backdrop that included quite a few changes and enhancements that I felt were nicely done; sure, the CGI was of “90s PC game” quality in places but there was a refreshing character-centric direction taken with it; for instance, Carrie’s father is mentioned in the lyrics and finally makes an appearance in the fabric of the stage show as part of the CGI film. Certainly, the CGI stylistically hits the nail on the head and the use of the album’s concept art along with more traditional scenes was a nice touch. The Liam Neeson hologram was nicely done although the version that appeared on stage looked quite washed out from my perspective. The vocals carried through the arena which compensated for this.

Am I sad that this will almost certainly be the final time I’ll see The War of the Worlds live? Yes, but I would definitely say it was an enhancement on the experience I had in 2012 (which was great). I absolutely had the best seats in the house and had a thoroughly great time. There’s an exciting direction for Jeff Wayne’s work promised next year and I’m excited to see where the work goes!

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds 2014

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