Review and Photography by Ken Harrison

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, The New Generation

Photograph taken from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds in December 2012 by Ken Harrison

For the last time, Jeff Wayne has brought his alien extravaganza, “Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, Alive on Stage” to Birmingham as part of the Final Arena Tour. Since 2006, Wayne has been taking the musical adaptation of H.G.Wells’ 1898 classic text around the globe to sell out audiences.

In 1978, Jeff Wayne released his musical adaptation of the story as a concept album. A mixture of spoken word and song, alongside an iconic soundtrack, illustrated with beautiful examples of Geoff Taylor’s Victorian styled artwork, which now seamlessly fits with the modern day phenomenon of “Steampunk”, so much so, there is a “What is your Steampunk name?” chart within the tour programme. I am surprised that the audience does not dress up in the Steampunk gear in the way that other theatre goers dress up for “Rocky Horror” or “Forbidden Planet” that would be great fun.

For the album recording, Wayne surrounded himself with some of the leading artists of the day, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues), Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), David Essex, Julie Covington and many others. Richard Burton provided the narration that runs throughout the story as “The Journalist”, whose deep powerful voice is long embedded in the memory of anyone who has ever heard album.

Over the various tours this show has made, Wayne has updated, modified and enhanced the experience by reworking the score, expanding the animation and screen effects, the lighting and pyrotechnics. New cast members are also brought in, whilst retaining some previous cast members.

Liam Neeson, reprises his holographic appearance as the Narrator on screen, with Brian McFadden (Westlife) taking the on-stage Journalist role, and X-Factor’s Shayne Ward who appears as the Artilleryman. Will Stapleton has been replaced by Joseph Whelan (X-Factor contestant) for the part of “The Spirit of Man” and Jason Donovan returns as Parson Nathaniel and Carrie Hope Fletcher Wayne Beth, Parson Nathaniel’s Wife. Again Wayne takes a podium at the centre of the stage to conduct the 36 -piece ULLAdubULLA Strings and 10-piece Black Smoke Band including renowned Bass player Herbie Flowers and Chris Spedding (who played on the original album) on guitar. These boys can make their guitars sing, fantastic stuff.

The score is changed (often subtly) in many areas, but particularly beefed up with many more big drum beats accompanying the explosions and movements of machines on screen. The light show has also been reworked with extensive use of strobes shooting into the arena, to show the Martian Heat ray in action.

This show sees the introduction of HG Wells (the author) played by Callum O’Neill (with the aid of prosthetics) at the start and various points through the performance showing him at various stages of his life (and as an old man in 1945, a few months before his passing in 1946) and trying to pass on lessons of the past for the future. The updated show continues to play out Wells’ classic story of the invasion of Earth by Martians due to the impending death of their planet, from their initial arrival until their defeat by microscopic bacteria for which they had no immunity.

Whilst Neeson has a distinctive voice, and works well with the updated show, I still miss Richard Burton’s rich, deep, booming voice. After 30 odd years of listening to the original album, his voice for me is synonymous with the role. However, with Burton long since departed and with Wayne unable to develop the character and script any further in that direction, there really isn’t anyone with the vocal qualities that comes close except Neeson.

McFadden surprised me this evening, his vocals rival Justin Hayward’s on “Forever Autumn” , who really was a tough act to follow. Shayne Ward plays the “Artilleryman” well, with a voice not as gritty as Ricky Wilson from the previous version.

Jason Donovan, returning to his role as Parson Nathaniel, has really nailed the tormented priest and has definitely made the role his own. Carrie Hope Fletcher’s voice is sublime in her duet with Donovan for “The Spirit Of Man”, high, sweet and beautifully clear, reminiscent of Dubstar’s Sarah Blackwood. Whelan’s “The Voice of Humanity” performing “Thunder Child” was good, but not as gutsy and powerful as others, and seemed almost muted against the rest of the performances. The final change made by Wayne is the addition of a new song, a development of a theme from the original album, “Life Begins Again” but now fully fleshed out into an ensemble vocal piece by the main cast members.

Wayne has taken the show further than before with the Score, Lighting, Special Effects, CGI, Animation and Pyrotechnics, not to mention the actors performances, and shows great development and exploration, and continuity with the link back to the original album release via Geoff Taylor’s exquisite artwork rendered large on a 100 foot screen. There is no question that if Wayne continued to tour this show, the audience would still be there, ever eager to enjoy the spectacle. Such is the demand for the show. Each new tour has upped the ante in terms of the performance to bring something new each time out. However, I think Wayne has gone out (for now) on a highpoint with this version and like the old stage adage “always leave ‘em wanting more”.

Act 1 The Coming of the Martians:

1. Prequel
2. The Eve of the War
3. Horsell Common and the Heat Ray
4. The Artilleryman and The Fighting Machine
5. Forever Autumn
6. Thunder Child

Act II – The Earth Under the Martians:

1. Distant Shores
2. The Red Weed (Part I)
3. The Spirit of Man
4. The Red Weed (Part II)
5. The Artilleryman Returns
6. Brave New World
7. Dead London (Parts I & II)
8. Epilogue (Part I)
9. Epilogue (Part II)

The Cast:

Liam Neeson (George Herbert, The Journalist)
Brian McFadden (The Sung Thoughts of The Journalist)
Shayne Ward (The Artilleryman)
Joseph Whelan (The Voice of Humanity)
Carrie Hope Fletcher (Beth, Parson Nathaniel’s Wife)
Jason Donovan (Parson Nathaniel)
Anna-Marie Wayne (Carrie, The Journalist’s Fiancée)
Jonathan Vickers (William Rowland and others)
Lily Osborne (Vera May and other)
Callum O’Neill (HG Wells)
Lewis Macleod (Martian Voices)

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