Before it started, I was not aware of ever having heard the music. ‘Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds’ to me was a large cardboard display which caused an obstruction in the record shop.
I have read most of H. G. Wells’s novel on which the production is based. The reason I started to read it is because of having read another book, a work of non-fiction by Niall Ferguson, called ‘The War of the World’. This is an attempt to explain why the 20th century was so full of wars and ethnic violence. Ferguson explains that Wells’s novel was allegorical. The descriptions of the devastating effects of the Martian heat ray were really an attempt to predict what would happen, both to combatants and civilians, once large-scale war broke out between industrialised societies. Wells’s predictions were terrifyingly accurate, of course, and came true in both world wars and numerous other conflicts.
This allegorical interpretation seemed completely lacking in Jeff Wayne’s production. In other words, we were encouraged to believe that the Martians were simply Martians. Encouragement was provided mostly in the form of a 20-foot tall, three-legged model of a Martian fighting machine, complete with pyrotechnic heat-ray, and a special effect which made the stage look like Yorkshire’s largest living-flame gas-fire. By the time this model descended, the stage was buzzing with activity. Liam Neeson appeared as the narrator on two screens: a larger-than-life portrait view to the left, and a life-size full height view in the middle. The rock band was also to the left of the illuminated walkway in the middle, with the classical orchestra on the right, in front of which was Jeff Wayne himself, conducting. The sung parts of the narration were delivered by Marti Pellow (ex ‘Wet Wet Wet’). Above the stage was a cinema screen.
The first of the actors to appear were a man wearing a steam punk outfit, and a woman in a black and white striped dress and a miniature hat. They mingled with the audience, pretended to be using an antique, brass telescope, and then appeared as astronomers at the beginning of the show, witnessing what they failed to recognise as the launch of the invasion force. Liam Neeson’s narration started shortly afterwards.
None of the characters was convincing. One strand of the story is that the narrator travels from a provincial town to London, to look for his fiancé, but she has already fled by boat. This relationship was portrayed on the cinema screen. The portrayal to me seemed very dilute. Neither the narrator nor his fiancé had any details portrayed about them, and so we did not know who they were or why we should think they were important.
None of the characters was convincing until the Artilleryman came on to sing his solo part. He was bearded, spattered with blood, and dishevelled. His appearance marked the first part of the show which I recognised. When he sang the lines, ‘With just a handful of men / we’ll start all over again’ I recalled that I had heard David Essex singing this is the late 70s. The character of the Artilleryman was manic and convincing. The singer’s voice was certainly equal to the task of conveying this. ‘This chap should be the front man for a band,’ I thought, ‘He can really sing.’ I found out later that it was Ricky Wilson, front man of The Kaiser Chiefs. This was the high point of the show.
In case you have not read the book or seen the production, I will not tell you the ending, but I will warn you that it is poor.
As a feat of technical and musical direction, the production was spectacular and accomplished. Its drawback was that it lacked emotional impact, because we did not really know who any of the characters were, and the narrative was not strong enough to compensate for the lack of characterisation.
The music, too, lacked emotional impact. I did not find the mixture of a rock band with a classical ensemble added to either. To me, it was the musical equivalent of Bailey’s Irish Cream, to which my rejoinder would be, ‘Can I have the whiskey and the cream in separate containers, please?’ The guitar soloist was obviously very talented, but this was not rock ‘n’ roll. There was something stifling, almost formal, about the arrangement which pushed rock ‘n’ roll to one side. Rock music has to be pent-up and to at least look as if it is about to go out of control. This was rehearsed and controlled and, therefore, rather bland.