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Review Roundup: VIVA FOREVER! Opens in the West End

Producer Judy Craymer presents Viva Forever!, the new musical written by BAFTA winning writers Jennifer Saunders, (Absolutely Fabulous, French & Saunders) and featuring the multi-million-selling songs of The Spice Girls. The show began previews on 27 November with the official opening last night, 11 December, 2012, at the Piccadilly Theatre in London's West End.

Leading The Cast is the highly accomplished Sally Ann Triplett and West End newcomer Hannah John-Kamen, who will play Lauren and Viva, the mother and daughter roles which are right at the heart of the musical.

VIVA FOREVER! is a romantic comedy that tells the story of a family thrown into chaos, as Viva (played by Hannah) and her three best friends (Luce played by Siobhan Athwal, Diamond by Lucy Phelps and Holly by Dominique Provost-Chalkley) get swept up in a TV talent show where stars are born and dreams are shattered.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Paul Taylor, The Independent: ...the evening only achieves the kind of deliriously silly and joyous lift-off that you really, really want from this kind of show – and more than once – at the encore when the company dances up a storm to a "Spice Up Your Life" under flashing lights and in a tightly-drilled orgy of camp, with Sally Ann Triplett's very likeable mother returning in a droll, glittery version of Geri Halliwell's famous Union Jack dress. This points to the fact that the Spice Girls' songs, with their clever hooks and catchy rhythms, are better at projecting an attitude than fleshing out a dramatic situation and it also indicates marked deficiencies in Jennifer Saunders' charmless, messy, lacklustre book...Hannah John-Kamen is appealing and in above-average voice as the eponymous Viva...Somehow, though, the other members of Viva's band...get bafflingly sidelined. Sure, Girl Power reasserts itself when they swarm on near the end for a vibrant performance of "Wannabe". But a rousing celebration of individuality and rebellion feels a tad unearned as the climax to a show that's so so lacking in any truly original or challenging spark of its own.

Alice Primmer, The Yorker: While satirising the evils of a contrived reality show is hardly a new idea, even the caricatures are tackled with such verve that it feels fresh. The plot plays with the themes of the original Girl Power group – friendship, loyalty and fun – but bases little on the band themselves. Perhaps I'm biased, but it felt much more clever and self-aware than Craymer's previous hit musical...Overall the Spice Girls' back catalogue was wrestled into a narrative surprisingly well, and a nice balance was struck between classics, imaginative re-workings and mash-ups...For those of us whose childhood was defined by the Spice Girls, it is undoubtedly one of the best feel-good musicals around. Suffice to say, if the thought of leaping out of your seat to bounce along to 'Spice Up Your Life' fills you with dread, then it's advisable to steer clear.

Alexis Petridis, The Guardian:  The cast are largely great, particularly given that they have caricatures rather than characters to work with. At least one member of the audience felt less torn than he suspected he was supposed to be by the main protagonist's dilemma over whether to abandon her bandmates at the behest of a TV talent show mentor, on the grounds that her bandmates seemed only marginally less insufferable than the mentor: better to lumber yourself with one pain in the bum than three.

Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail:  Producer Judy 'Mamma Mia' Craymer's mistake was to hire comedian Jennifer Saunders to write the story.  Miss Saunders is a wiseacre ironist, so default-sneery that she will not stoop to admitting the heart (sentimentalism if you must) which can make a musical sing.  Add to that some iffy performances, gloomy backdrops and a lamentably slow start, and you have the makings of a notable West End flop. It's almost as if the thing has a death wish.

Charles Spencer, The Telegraph: I'll tell you what I wanted, what I really, really wanted – I wanted this terrible show to stop.... This musical is tawdry, lazy and unedifying, and one could sense a miasma of disappointment emanating from an audience of up-for-it Spice Girls fans slowly realising that they had paid top whack to see a clunker.

Caroline Frost, Huffington Post: Instead, we got a thinly-written satire about a thinly-disguised 'Starmaker' talent show, whose lead judge - quelle surprise - controls the results. While there is, perhaps, still a market for this cultural arrow-firing, a musical dedicated to the hits of a manufactured band, whose members still happily go on these shows as judges, isn't perhaps the best forum for it.

Lisa Martland of The Stage:  One of the biggest disappointments is Jennifer Saunders' rather trite book which is symbolic of what is sadly a lazily put-together show (and that includes the unusually average work of director Paul Garrington, choreographer Lynne Page and production designer Peter McKintosh). Despite massive success on the small screen, Saunders exhibits her lack of experience in writing for the stage. Too many characters are sketchy caricatures or stereotypes, however hard the cast attempts to give them substance. Even the experience and talent of Sally Ann Triplett (as Viva's mother Lauren) and Sally Dexter's jaded and manipulative TV judge Simone cannot save the day.

Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard: One of the main reasons for the Spice Girls' success was their big and contrasting personalities. Those are absent here. What remains is their music: a couple of brilliantly effervescent tunes, a few other catchy numbers, and a lot that even their fans might struggle to hum. When 'Spice Up Your Life' is performed, it's a genuinely buzzy moment. But there aren't enough really potent songs to make this a compelling jukebox musical. The first half is limp, the second better yet hardly electrifying.

Alun Palmer of the Daily Mirror:  In a plot eerily similar to the Take That musical Never Forget, we see four-piece girl group Eternity on the verge of stardom through the Starseekers (read X Factor) TV talent show. But then judge Simone (Sharon Osborne) tells singer Viva to dump her three mates, go solo and make it big, which of course she does.  It doesn't take Andrew Lloyd Webber to know within 10 minutes of the curtain rising how it will all end.  All that is left is to enjoy the journey. And there comes the second problem. Laughs, from writer Jennifer Saunders, are surprisingly few and far between.

Michael Coveney for WhatsOnStage,com:  Jennifer Saunders' confused narrative - totally un-theatrical, completely un-satirical - lays down a girl group audition for a TV talent show, "Starmakers," and suddenly lurches into something else: their sultry Posh lookalike, Viva (Hannah John-Kamen), is plucked for solo stardom and the rest fade into the background.

Peter Brown of London Theatre Guide:  The production values are high, the songs are well-sung and the casting is pretty-much spot on, but the story is lame and the humour is vacuous, almost as if the script has been sanitised.

Libby Purves in The Times: I'm not sure we really, really wanted this. . . . Watching me print off my compulsory security pass for the blocked streets around Piccadilly, my husband's fine brow wrinkled in confusion. "Aren't the Spice Girls last century?" True: disbanded once, re-formed, disbanded again, congealed one final time for the Olympics. But they did form a legend: a breezy girl group after bland boy bands, carefully diverse ("Sporty, Scary, Ginger, Posh, Baby"), projecting an upbeat uncompetitive female solidarity, sexless as romping puppies. They even gave an interview to The Spectator in 1996 supporting Mrs Thatcher as a Girl-Power symbol.

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