War of the Worlds

SSE Hydro, Glasgow

Mark Smith


I’M sitting in the audience at the Hydro in Glasgow trying to work out why a 1970s progressive rock musical inspired by a Victorian novel has been such a hit for such a long time. Then the 35ft-tall, three-tonne Martian fighting machine is lowered from the ceiling and shoots flames at the audience. What more could you want? Perhaps every theatre show should have a giant flame-throwing spaceship. I would like that.

It helps if you’ve always loved the original War of the Worlds album, which was released almost exactly 40 years ago. Almost no one thought it would work. But the composer Jeff Wayne had a theory about what an alien invasion, and the human reaction to it, would sound like. There would be violins. And electric guitars. And David Essex. And Richard Burton warning, in a voice of Welsh slate, of the dangers to come.

Forty years on, the personnel has changed a bit – the Richard Burton role is now taken by Liam Neeson, whose recorded performance is beamed onto a screen, and the David Essex part is now played by Adam Garcia, who gives the best performance of the tour as the soldier who thinks the only way to escape from the aliens is to live underground. Garcia accessorises well with a spade.

The technicalities of the show are hugely impressive too because they’re made up of so many bits that would make a show on their own: films on three giant screens, a 36-piece orchestra, a nine-piece band, live actors, giant props, animation, and at the centre of it all, conducting like he has literally just come up with the idea for the album for the first time, is Jeff Wayne. It’s histrionic and huge and fun.

There are some little things that niggle: someone should tell Newton Faulkner, who plays the journalist, that Victorian gentlemen did not have man-buns; some of the lyrics are also hard to pick up in the second half; and the actors’ interaction with the projected image of Liam Neeson provide the most awkward moments of the show.

But the imaginative staging, the unflinching special effects and, above all, the exuberant music make this a thrilling event. When the alien invasion of Earth does finally come to put us out of our misery, I hope this is what it looks like.