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Review: Back to the Future the Musical (Manchester Opera House)

Roger Bart and Olly Dobson take on the iconic lead roles in this world premiere

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

Director of the Back to the Future films Robert Zemeckis has consistently ruled out remakes of the franchise to preserve them for fans. This musical adaptation, making its world premiere 30 years after the originals were released, therefore carries heavy expectation. In a triumphant success, Zemeckis and the first film's creators have reunited to supercharge this thrilling production with gigawatts of musical entertainment and visual delight.

Adhering to Bob Gale's original plot, cool teenager Marty McFly is unintentionally transported back 30 years to 1955 in his scientist friend Doc Brown's time-travelling car. Before he can find a way to return back to the future, however, he must carefully align past events and crucially ensure his parents fall in love to prevent the erasure of his own existence.

Like the film, the musical begins in Doc Brown's workshop, which displays the sci-fi themes programmed into Tim Hatley's futuristic set design. Metal plating resembling a computer motherboard frames the stage, with streaks of neon colour flashing across LED strips. Fully immersing the audience in the imaginative sequences is the centrepiece – the iconic DeLorean car provides moments of spectacular special effects, all elevated by Hugh Vanstone and Tim Lutkin's hallucinogenic lighting and Finn Ross's galactic projections. Huge bright backdrops move through Marty's Hill Valley hometown, while clocks serve as inescapable reminders of the continuous threat of time advancing on Marty's endangered future.

Time is also clearly embedded in many of Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard's songs, from "Future Boy" to "It's A Matter of Time", while the script enjoys repeatedly warning Marty "you'll be history". Further enhancing the film material, the sense of transience is explored through the characters' desires to secure a legacy and lifetime achievement – the dismayed Doc Brown's unsuccessful inventions mirror the "slacker" McFly, led by a father too diffident to assertively prove himself. These backstories are developed alongside the reinforced central relationship that affirms the paternal dynamic between Marty and Doc Brown, so the protection of family resonates more strongly.

Olly Dobson in Back to the Future
© Sean Ebsworth Barnes

The cast is devoted to these beloved characters, richly embodying their irresistibly vibrant, warm likeability. Olly Dobson is immensely enjoyable as swaggering youth Marty, with brazen confidence, amiable charm and the same adolescent whine as Michael J Fox's screen performance. Boundlessly energetic, he teaches his dad dance routines to impress his mother while wheeling around on a skateboard, full of testosterone gratified by cars, girls and technology. Finding both humour and sympathy as the two social misfits, Roger Bart plays eccentric scientist Doc Brown while Hugh Coles' constantly out-thrust trembling hands match his quivering droll laugh as Marty's floundering father George.

Occasionally the musical exuberance overpowers a story all about combatting rejection and failure. "For The Dreamers" contradicts its ebullient tone with Doc Brown's desperate aspirations for accomplishment, and inside the McFly family home their modest working-class life is celebrated in an uplifting anthem, flattening the sense of pity. Similarly, in 1955 Marty's mother Lorraine twice sings passionately about her burning "feelings deep inside" which – while an incredibly confident performance – loses the painfully meek awkwardness that made her romantic attraction so tenderly endearing in the film.

Nevertheless, this is an impressive and exhilarating musical adventure, faithfully reinvigorating a classic of cinema history while leaving its own dazzling impression sure to last long into the future.