It seems like a rather bizarre thing to go to a concert knowing exactly what you’re going to hear. But that’s what I and several thousand other people did on the second UK arena tour of Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds. It’s a record I’ve loved since birth, thanks to my mum who received the highlights album (as in all songs and not much Richard Burton) as a present when it first came out in the mid-70’s. When her kids were born, we were all subjected to it, and instead of rebelling against what our crappy old parents liked, we all clung to it, and we all still adore it.
It was the subtle differences of hearing it live that I was most excited about. Mainly, seeing Jeff Wayne and legendary bassist Herbie Flowers in the flesh. Yeah, they’re getting on a bit, but you’ve got to give them serious respect for being so dedicated that they’re still doing this 30 years on. Guitarist Chris Spedding is also part of the original cast, and looked fantastic rocking out next to Herbie. Justin Hayward got huge applause as he graced the stage, a blues legend in his own right, and still playing the sung thoughts of the journalist. Chris Thompson is another one of the originals, as the voice of humanity, almost bursting a blood vessel to hit the high notes, but sounding incredible. What was so good about these original members was that none of them tried to go off on musical tangents and steal the show – they stuck to the record, putting their all into it, making an old favourite into something live-action.
Obviously, there were a handful of people who for various reasons couldn’t be in the musical, which is what the record was always meant to be, although Jeff had to wait three decades for theatre technology to be advanced enough to tour with it. Richard Burton and Phil Lynott (the journalist and parson Nathaniel) are sadly dead, David Essex is now too old to play the “young artilleryman”, and Julie Covington is either also too old now to play Nathaniel’s wife Beth, or simply didn’t want to be involved. But their replacements were ideal, particularly Alexis James, who played the artilleryman this year and last year (the musical’s opening year). I have the DVD of a performance from 2006, and I can tell from that how much Alexis has improved and made the character his own. He’s taken on a little of David Essex’s cockney accent and youthful charm and let it evolve in his own style when acting, and made the singing incredibly energetic. This year’s performance saw him making the character more manic, as H. G. Wells always intended, only adding to the story and giving his character more dimensions. He starts off bursting with energy, excited about the brave new world he’s going to start, and ends it with tearful anxiety, showing that he knows it will never work, but refusing to give in, which I thought was just perfect; and in the hope that my mum doesn’t read this, I’d say I prefer his version to David’s.
Last year Russell Watson played Nathaniel, and watching the DVD made me almost recoil at his version of the parson. He’s no Phil Lynott, that’s for sure. But this year John Payne, who made his mark in prog rock bands such as Asia, took over, with a brilliant gravely rock voice that suits the part of the desperate Nathaniel perfectly. He also looks the part much more, Russell seeming too young to play a religiously insane parson on the brink of losing his faith. His wife was played by Sinead Quinn, a former Fame Academy star, whose singing was dramatic but her acting wasn’t great. But if Alexis managed to lose his nerves and claim the role for himself after the first year, perhaps Sinead will if she returns for the next tour. Replacing Richard Burton was always going to be more tricky. I feel that somehow having a real actor loitering on stage all the time wouldn’t have worked, and simply taking away that incredibly distinctive voice from the narration would have been wrong. Jeff was extremely innovative with his idea for having Richard still on stage. Last year, there was a huge polystyrene head hung above the stage, with Richard’s face projected onto it. Not only that, but they had a lookalike recite all of Richard’s words and then his face with the moving mouth was altered to look even more like the real Richard, then placed onto the carefully carved head. This year was different; they wanted to make him even more 3D, so his face and neck were projected onto a kind of plastic sheet, and the whole thing had been re-shot, this time with eye and head movements. No one would have believed…
Another spectacular prop was the tripod that came down onto the stage over the band, flashing and sending out its heat ray, and finally collapsing with sparks and dying eyes as the last Martian dies at the end. Perfect.
Jeff really milked his standing ovation at the end, but with good reason – I certainly would, if I’d written a record 30 years ago that is still so resonant in the 21st century that arenas sell out to see it. The whole thing was extremely moving to watch, and hear live, and see the background animations. The Black Smoke Band, composed of old and new musical members, and the ulladubulla strings were 100% perfect in recreating the music we were all there to hear, so huge credit has to go out to Jeff Wayne and his crew of loyal musicians and actors for finally being able to do the record justice.