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Back to the Future – the Musical review: the iconic movie makes its way to the West End stage

The show blazes its way onto the Strand

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Roger Bart and Olly Dobson in Back to the Future – the Musical
© Sean Ebsworth Barnes

The car is the undoubted star of this musical version of the much-loved 1985 movie. It arrives on stage in a flash of blue light, and every time it reappears, it roars, it soars, and burns up the streets of Tim Hatley's stunning designs which cleverly combine sets, backdrops and electronics.

Those starry special effects (including lighting by Tim Lutkin that shoots around the Adelphi's proscenium arch and out into the auditorium, illusions by Chris Fisher, and videos by Finn Ross) combine with an energetic cast to make a show that is enormously good fun – without ever being particularly memorable as a musical.

It's taken an awfully long time to reach the stage. The idea was first mooted to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, creators and writers of what became a film trilogy, in 2005; it's been in active production since 2010 and actually made it to the stage in Manchester in early 2020, before Covid pushed back its West End premiere. Covid caused further complications when Roger Bart, who is playing the inventor Doc Brown, tested positive, leaving understudy Mark Oxtoby in charge on opening night.

Bart was still in place when I saw the show, which follows the narrative of the first movie pretty closely, while omitting the terrorists who attack Doc just as his friend Marty McFly powers his time-travelling DeLorean back to 1955, where he meets his own parents and changes the course of their lives.

The Back to the Future – the Musical company
© Sean Ebsworth Barnes

Some aspects of that journey into the past have been toned down too – including the assault on his mother by the school bully – but the lineaments of the plot are all present and correct. So are the jokes (Marty's trendy 1980s puffer jacket is mistaken for a life preserver) and the iconic props including his skateboard. The musical adds a few time-travelling twisters of its own, including Doc's vision of the year 2020 as a year without conflict or disease.

Alan Silvestri, who is responsible for the score of the original film, has preserved its highlights – "The Power of Love", "Johnny B Goode" – while adding new music and lyrics with Glen Ballard. The resulting power pop contains one brilliantly repeated joke which involves a chorus line turning up every time the gleeful Doc starts singing, an idea that enlivens all his numbers and gives Chris Bailey an opportunity to have fun with some period-spoofing choreography.

The songs don't so much power the action as act as colourful interludes, illustrations of the complicating effects of time travel. They spring knowingly from the past being a different country – there's a number in praise of cigarettes, DDT, fossil fuel and asbestos, for example.

For the cast, the problem lies in deciding how much to make their characters copies of their filmic predecessors. As Doc, Bart replicates some of Christopher Lloyd's mannerisms while introducing his own form of manic energy and humour. It is harder for Olly Dobson as Marty to escape Michael J Fox's long shadow and effortless delivery, but he makes a fair fist of providing the show with a charming centre. Hugh Coles delights the audience with his imitation of George McFly's gentle hopelessness, and Cedric Neal just about brings the house down every time he unleashes his terrific voice and considerable presence.

It's undoubtedly an evening that sends you back to your own future with a smile on your face, a perfect night out for nostalgics and car-loving kids of all ages. Whether in the West End's uniquely competitive current climate, it is musically strong enough to stand the test of time, only time will tell.