Review: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds at First Direct Arena, Leeds

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.
Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.
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Just what is it about Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds that remains so enduring?

Is it the narrative, a sci-fi apocalypse concept of alien outsiders threating a dusky, Victorian London? Is it the music, part symphonic requiem, part prog-rock fever dream? Is it how Wayne’s tousled bouffant, from the conductor’s stand shaped like the crows’ nest aboard the Thunder Child, hypnotically sways with every swish of his baton? Or is it all three?

Jason Donovan in Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.

Jason Donovan in Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.

Regardless of the source of its eternal popularity, TWOTW is unmistakeably one of British music’s most seminal records, a secular cultural curio that transcends mediums. Arguably though, this setting – a writ-large theatrical production back in major venues, calling by the First Direct Arena in Leeds – is its natural home away from vinyl, a quasi-operatic restaging that brings Wayne’s work to tangible life. Accompanied by the 48-man ULLAdubULLA string orchestra and ten-piece Black Smoke Band, including original members Herbie Flowers and Chris Spedding, the 75-year-old composer is firmly in his element here.

Adapting an hour-and-a-half record into a two-hour stage production does come with elements of padding, which are handled adeptly. Early renditions of The Eve of the War and Forever Autumn come relatively unchanged, twinned with a widescreen backing film padding out the further story in low-rent special effect mode. But the latter is given a sweet reprise at the dawn of Act 2, featuring Wayne’s daughter Anna-Marie as the previously unspoken wife of protagonist The Journalist, Carrie and Brave New World’s paean to utopian possibilities now features full cast harmonies.

The various key players tasked with delivering the iconic dialogue and vocals mostly steer clear of emulating the originals; arguable headline name Jason Donovan wisely steps wide of the late Phil Lynott’s fire-and-brimstone preacher histrionics as Parson Nathaniel while Newton Faulker’s Sung Thoughts of the Journalist are more falteringly trembling than Justin Hayward’s original mellifluous tones.

Of course, all – save maybe Nathan James as the barrel-chested, powerhouse Voice of Humanity – are dwarfed, quite literally, by the other two stars of the show; a full-scale replica of the Martian fighting machine, spurting fire and lumbering over the stage like a spider-tank, and the soothing hologram of Liam Neeson, as magnetic with his narration as Richard Burton was all those years ago.

Jeff Wayne, composer of The War of the Worlds.

Jeff Wayne, composer of The War of the Worlds.

It all comes together in triumph; Wayne’s vision recast as another breath-stealing triumph.