The show is billed as a comedy musical about "family, friendship and
trying to stay true to yourself in a world where everyone craves instant
fame and will grab it at any price."
Jennifer Saunders’ confused narrative - totally un-theatrical, completely un-satirical… this is a damp, self-referential occasion, with Paul Garrington’s production – tremendous in the musical numbers... lacking the killer Mamma Mia! qualities of Catherine Johnson’s sly and witty book and Phyllida Lloyd’s ruthless direction… Lightning hasn’t struck twice. One or two of the songs are well-structured but most are anaemic… Sally Dexter has a couple of extravagant moments, otherwise this is a musical theatre desert… the story of Viva is a non-story: she loves her mum and at the moment of her greatest triumph throws off her shoes (and her hair-piece) and cosies up with the mates she ditched on the way to the top. The plot they threw out the window in the first act never comes back.
Viva Forever! is not fun or refreshing, largely because instead of giving us the in-yer-face full arrangements of “Say You'll Be There”, “Who Do You Think You Are”, “2 Become 1” et al, it treats these enjoyable pop ditties as endlessly malleable Dylanesque narratives: chopped and changed and stopped and started, sung out of key and stripped of their bounce in order to further Saunders' rubbishy script... The odd good line reminds us of Ab Fab mastermind Saunders's past form, but for the most part the blandly cast, blandly sung Viva feels like it was knocked off in about five minutes... A dull, pointless exercise in not giving the people what they really, really want.
It has some moderately amusing moments (“2 Become 1”, say, reimagined as a duet for a couple of out-of-condition mid-lifers shyly getting it together in a Spanish hotel room) and an odd bit that almost twangs the heartstrings… Not only does her script rarely give you that necessary gleeful sense of expectancy about where the songs are going to be shoe-horned in, but it’s embarrassingly derivative of Mamma Mia! and looks way past its sell-by date in its utterly surprise-free satiric swipe at X Factor… Hannah John-Kamen is appealing and in above-average voice as the eponymous Viva… Paul Garrington’s strenuous production revolves smoothly between the houseboat where Viva lives with her feisty adoptive mother (Ms Triplett) and the studios where she comes under the baleful influence of Sally Dexter’s botoxed bitch-diva Simone.
This musical is tawdry, lazy and unedifying, and one could sense a miasma of disappointment emanating from an audience of up-for-it Spice Girls fans slowly realising that they had paid top whack to see a clunker… Jennifer Saunders’ script is almost insultingly banal… It is also hard to warm to the show’s heroine, Viva (the sweet-voiced but bland Hannah John-Kamen), who, when offered the chance to go solo, dumps her friends to become a star and “live the dream”… It’s sad to see that fine actress Sally Dexter playing the queen bitch on the talent show, a one-dimensional role… that finally becomes bogged down in a mire of lachrymose sentimentality. Sally Ann Triplett has a couple of touching moments as the adoptive mother and makes the most of the one song that is staged with a hint of wit, 2 Become 1, in which she rekindles an old romance… this is a fatuous show with nothing fresh to say about popular culture and our fixation with fame. If you love the Spice Girls stay at home and listen to their greatest hits.
The cast are largely great, particularly given that they have caricatures rather than characters to work with… And there's nothing really wrong with Jennifer Saunders' script, although there are moments where the plot fairly obviously exists solely to crowbar another 90s hit into proceedings… in fact, the show's best and funniest moment comes when it opts to mock the material it has to work with. Sung with a lot of mugging by a nervous middle-aged couple on the verge of consummating their relationship, the runny ballad "2 Become 1" becomes authentically hilarious… it zips along cheerily enough, and compared with We Will Rock You, it's a work of untrammelled genius. Faint praise perhaps, but never mind: judging by the crowds of thirty-something ladies leaving the theatre singing "Stop" and "Say You'll Be There", Viva Forever! is critic-proof.
Saunders is a wiseacre ironist, so default-sneery that she will not stoop to admitting the heart (sentimentalism if you must) which can make a musical sing… some iffy performances, gloomy backdrops and a lamentably slow start, and you have the makings of a notable West End flop. It’s almost as if the thing has a death wish… Fans looking for a good bop may be frustrated by the brevity (and at times sparsity) of the musical interludes… Given that thousands of people have reportedly already bought tickets, I feel a cur for being so down on this show. Perhaps they should just relish it for what it is: a prize Christmas turkey.
One of the main reasons for the Spice Girls’ success was their big and contrasting personalities. Those are absent here. What remains is their music: a couple of brilliantly effervescent tunes, a few other catchy numbers, and a lot that even their fans might struggle to hum... The first half is limp, the second better yet hardly electrifying... Jennifer Saunders’ script, which ought to carry us efficiently from one song to the next, is ponderous. Aspects of it are positively bizarre: for instance, Spain is depicted as a country of dazzling exoticism. There are a few half-decent jokes but many that fall flat... The buoyant cast make the most of a book where charm and wit are in short supply. Hannah John-Kamen is likeable as Viva... with Sally Ann Triplett the most big-hearted presence as Viva’s adoptive mum and Sally Dexter suitably grotesque as queen bitch Simone... As it is, it’s a wannabe, more "Tell me why" than "Say you’ll be there".