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The War of the Worlds (Dominion Theatre)

Jeff Wayne's musical version of the sci-fi story arrives in the West End

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Da Da DAAAAA! The opening strains of Jeff Wayne's seminal 1978 concept album, based on HG Wells' 1897 sci-fi book The War of the Worlds, are still a total earworm. That says something about the power of Wayne's prog-rock soundtrack, which - rather surprisingly for a kooky electronica album about martians taking over earth - became one of the biggest selling records of all time.

The album has continued to exist in various forms since then - including a live touring version - and Wayne and director Bob Thomson have now expanded its theatrical bits and tried to make it into a full blown show.

Tried, and not quite succeeded. The War of the Worlds is a very odd thing. In the middle of the stage are two huge platforms on different levels where two groups of musicians sit - one a rock band the other a set of strings. The stocky Wayne stands in the centre of them conducting, a bit like some sort of alien puppet-master.

In-front of the two platforms, the story plays out. There's precious little room for the uneven cast to do their eye-wateringly over-the-top gasping and running as the martians lay waste to the country. Here is a bout of scenery-chewing the like of which I've not seen for a long time.

But if you're even considering buying a ticket to The War of the Worlds, you've probably grown up with the album, and you might even be looking for something a little OTT. If you are, this show will satisfy you no end. This is high-end cheese, and at points it's delightfully entertaining as such. From the life-sized spider-like martian machine, to the colour projections that essentially tell the story, to the flames that regularly engulf the stage, this is big budget tackiness and it's often quite a lot of fun to watch. There's even a glimpse of a gloopy martian - something that looks as though it's been plucked from the Doctor Who special effects cupboard circa 1960.

Apart from Michael Praed - and his hologram counterpart Liam Neeson - who both play the Journalist, most of the leads are confined to a tiny bit of acting, with one main song. Praed and David Essex - Essex plays The Voice of Humanity - are the only ones who can both sing and act. Noughties pop-star Daniel Bedingfield is wooden as the Artillery Man (a part Essex once played), but his vocal range is made for song "Brave New World". In the second half Jimmy Nail gives an astonishingly ferocious turn as Parson Nathanial and blasts out his song "The Spirit of Man". His voice has a raspy, rocky excellence. Sugababe Heidi Range sings well, but can't pull off the acting.

There are huge misfires in Tomson's direction, not least in the decision to use movement to help progress the story: the martian red weed is manifested as dancers draped in red tendrils who writhe around the stage. It's just one example of horribly padded out stage time while the music continues overhead. Wayne probably should have re-invented the whole thing as a musical, or just left it as a semi-staged concert. Here, it's trying to be both.

Ultimately, Wayne's music is the star here. Booming out across the Dominion's auditorium, accompanied by Tim Oliver's impressive lighting design, it is evocative, ingenious and still stands up over thirty years later.

The War of the Worlds runs at the Dominion Theatre until 30 April.

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