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Review: Jeff Wayne's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, Dominion Theatre, Feb 18 2016

When Jeff Wayne decided to write a musical version of HG Wells's sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds, he could have had no idea that 40 years later his score would be performed in a West End theatre. It tells the tale of a journalist who witnesses the Martians' descent to earth - and their subsequent battle with humankind.

Unlike many of the theatre reviewers, this wasn't my first encounter with Wayne's musical extravaganza. Having been introduced to the legendary, iconic concept album as a child thanks to my prog-rock-loving dad, I've seen the arena tour multiple times, with casts including musical theatre stalwarts such as Kerry Ellis and Carrie Hope Fletcher as well as slightly more unexpected performers such as the Kaiser Chiefs' Ricky Wilson and tenor Russell Watson.

The arena tour was initially staged with narration from the holographic head of Richard Burton, with the singers in costume and performing around the musicians, who dominated the stage. Liam Neeson took on narration duties in hologram form when the tour went out on the road in 2012, allowing Wayne a little more scope and creativity, no longer restricted only to the narrative that Burton recorded before his death.

This residency at the Dominion was billed as a theatrical reimagining of the music's previous incarnations. Yet Wayne and his musicians still take up most of the stage, moving backwards and forwards to give the actors extra space when needed, and the scene is set primarily by projections, save for a couple of spells of interpretative dancing, and some clumping robotic Martians.

Again, the casting is somewhat eclectic but works well: from the world of musical theatre, Michael Praed charmingly plays the journalist George Herbert opposite the delightful Madalena Alberto as his fiancee Carrie. A rather odder couple are Parson Nathaniel and his wife Beth; Jimmy Nail sings well and had there been any scenery he would have been chewing it as the religious man descending into madness, while Sugababes' Heidi Range looks beautiful and sings melodically if not powerfully. (She also manages to draw some level of elegance out of her departure on a wire.) David Essex, one of the concept album's original performers, gets the Voice of Humanity's keys lowered for his voice; and Daniel Bedingfield puts in a shift as the Artilleryman, performing his one big number alongside a troupe of dancers who resemble a steampunk Village People.

Wayne has extended the score in recent years and added to the dialogue thanks to the liberation offered by the theatrical form; but I couldn't help but think that he and his director Bob Tomson had done his material a little disservice here, given the opportunity to take to the stage. Yes, the music would be the primary draw for many of the audience, and would explain keeping the musicians and their master centre stage - but if that's the reasoning for the semi-staged nature of this show, then it might as well have remained an arena tour. The hologram narrator is no longer necessary and the role could be easily played live on stage; indeed, all of the leads are somewhat underused (not least Alberto, who has only a handful of lines to sing in the theatre where she was such a triumph in Evita).

This is not to dismiss the show in the slightest. I had a wonderful evening out, and other fans of the music won't be disappointed, fans of sci-fi will see plenty to entertain them, as will fans of kitsch; this is a fabulously extravagant musical piece of excess - but it would have been good to see and hear a few more risks taken with what was originally such a daring piece of work.

The War of the Worlds runs at the Dominion Theatre.

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