Last night I was at the O2 Arena to see one of the 30th anniversary performances of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. For some reason it was a year late – the 30th anniversary was actually last year.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been Jeff Wayne with a group of unknowns performing the album, I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that with a couple of exceptions each part was played by the person who played it on the original album.
One of the exceptions was, of course, Richard Burton who narrated the album. But he was there in a way. A giant animated head was projected onto the side of the stage and recited Burton’s lines. The animation was impressive but it was slightly strange that it was based on a version of Burton’s face which was far younger than he was in 1978.
There was an added treat even before Burton’s opening narration. The show began with an animation of the martians plotting their attack. Some research this morning reveals that it was taken from a computer game based on the album which was released in 1998. This piece is also the source of the sample “the problem is, of course, the humans” which is used in one of the Ulladubulla remixes and which has been bugging me for years.
Following this short film, Burton comes in (“No-one would have believed …”) and “The Eve of the War” starts up. The animation continues telling the story of the invasion and in the middle of the song, Justin Hayward walks onto stage and tells exactly what the odds are against anything coming from Mars.
The performance continues in the same fashion. The band (and orchestra) play almost note-perfect renditions of the music, the video screen plays out the story and occasional guest stars come onto the stage to sing. It’s all really rather impressive.
The first missing guest star is David Essex as the artilleryman. I haven’t heard why why he isn’t involved but, to be honest, he isn’t really missed. Alexis James (no, neither have I) takes the part and does it very well.
During “Thunder Child” another surprise is revealed as a large martian fighting machine is lowered to the stage and started shining bright lights over the audience. My companion pointed out that “it all went a bit Pink Floyd” at that point, but in my opinion that’s no bad thing. As the Thunder Child was destroyed, Burton told us that “Earth belonged to the martians” and the first half of the show (the first album in the double album set for those of us old enough to remember such things) came to an end. We had a twenty minute break.
The second half starts in a lower key than the first half. “The Red Weed” is possibly the weakest musical link in the whole piece. Not that it’s bad by any means, it’s just that it doesn’t (in my opinion) hold up to the standards of the rest of the album. The animation was very nice at this point though.
I was expecting the pace to pick up again with “The Spirit of Man” which is my favourite part of the album. On the original recording this is a duet between Phil Lynott and Julie Covington. I know, of course, why Lynott wasn’t there but Covington was another unexplained absence. And these two were really missed. Lynott’s place was taken by another unknown called Shannon Noll and Covington’s by Jennifer Ellison. I really really tried to ignore my prejudice against Ellison, but she really isn’t the equal of Covington. Maybe her presence drew in some people who wouldn’t have come otherwise (I doubt it) but I was distinctly unimpressed by her performance.
The Alexis James returned to give us some more of his David Essex impression whilst singing “Brave New World” and the evening was back on track. Except that there wasn’t really very much track left. If you were writing the piece for stage then you’d make sure that there was a big finale. The War of the Worlds doesn’t have a big rousing finale. It just kind of fades out when the narrator realises that the martians have all been killed by terrestrial bacteria (sorry if that’s a spoiler for anyone).
Most of the audience were people who knew the album well and knew that there wasn’t much of interest likely to happen after the end of “Brave New World”. Combine that knowledge with the fact that the transport links to North Greenwich were severely curtailed last night (no Jubilee Line) and you end up with a large proportion of the audience starting to leave before the show was over. I have never seen so many people streaming out of an auditorium whilst the band were still playing.
We stayed until the end. It was good, but not as good as the end of the first half. There’s nothing they can do about that. The first half is just better.
All in all, it was a great show though. If you’re a fan of the original recording then I highly recommend it. If you’re not a fan of the original recording, then you really should be.
Now, who’s going to buy me a copy of the 7 disk collectors edition?