Thursday, 20 December 2012

Theatre review: Viva Forever!

They've been calling Viva Forever!, the latest jukebox musical to hit the West End, Viva For The Next Couple Of Months, although with the Piccadilly Theatre absolutely heaving tonight maybe it'll do a We Will Rock You and defy the critics. Album Tracks: The Musical is the nickname that came more to mind as I watched this bizarrely misfiring musical based on the music of the Spice Girls. I usually steer clear of jukebox shows but I guess what made me book for this one is that there's something really fun about Spice Girls songs, that made me figure that even if it was a bit of mess it should at least brighten up my evening. So perhaps the most disappointing thing about Jennifer Saunders' clusterfuck of a book is its utter mechanical joylessness. A by-the-numbers X Factor parody jostles with a shameless Mamma Mia ripoff to create a mass of loose ends that doesn't even segue into the songs particularly well.

The story, such as it is, sees Viva (Hannah John-Kamen) take part in a TV talent show as part of a girl group with her three best friends. But no sooner have they qualified for the live rounds than their name "Eternity" is put to the test, as their Sharon Osbourne-esque mentor Simone (Sally Dexter) announces she's ditching the rest of the girlband to have Viva go ahead as a solo act. So Viva leaves her friends behind, and is occasionally haunted by this, when it's not the other plot strand bothering her: Her adoptive mother Lauren (Sally Ann Triplett) who lives in a houseboat BECAUSE UNCONVENTIONAL, and who is worried that her daughter needs to find her birth mother despite the fact that Viva has shown absolutely no interest in doing so.

Producer Judy Craymer, also credited as "creator" here, is responsible for the original jukebox musical juggernaut Mamma Mia and there's a lot of obvious attempts to ape that show: The idea of seeking the birth mother is like the ABBA show's storyline of a girl finding her real father, except completely crowbarred in - after numerous protestations that she doesn't want to find her birth mother, Lauren finally shoves an envelope with the information into Viva's hand should she ever change her mind. It starts to look like an unsubtle hint: "Honestly, I'm sick of you, go be someone else's problem." Instead of a Greek island, the final stages of the talent show see Viva and Simone shipped off to a Spanish villa because ???????????? Actually the "because" is pretty much that it's a good setting for "Spice Up Your Life." At least that one's a song the audience recognises - considering the attraction of a jukebox musical lies largely in familiarity, there's a baffling amount of obscure songs, presumably album tracks. It takes over 35 minutes before an actual hit single ("Too Much") gets a look-in. And then there's "Look At Me" and "I Turn To You," which were solo singles for Geraldine Halliwell and Melanie Chisholm respectively, not Spice Girls tracks. So yeah, the choice of songs is... odd. Penny and I amused ourselves by watching the two rows of women in front of us, who'd come in well-lubricated and excited to hear some Spice Girls songs, greet each new song with shrugs and looks of "do you know this one? Me neither" to each other.

The X Factor parody has some nice touches (particularly the dig at Dermot's Sports Mime of Masculinity - and the bit with the pogo sticks is very authentically Brian Friedman) although the fact that the head judge (Bill Ward) is Simone's ex-husband is such a rom-com standard; how often do you actually see divorced couples presenting TV shows together? It doesn't even lead anywhere. But then neither does almost anything in the story - almost offensively so in the case of a theme about girls' body image that appears to be trying to make a point then gets quietly forgotten after a while. Viva's not-quite-romance with her Catalan musical director Angel (Ben Cura) is decidedly half-baked, and Lauren's romance with long-time suitor Mitch, (Simon Slater,) a chauffeur who seems to exclusively drive around 1980s pop stars, feels like yet another bit left over from Mamma Mia. (And the thing about Mitch's clients being the likes of Simon Le Bon and Jon Bon Jovi, is that... a joke of some kind? I genuinely couldn't tell if it was meant to be deliberately funny or just Saunders' references not being quite as up-to-date as she thought.)

What really makes Saunders come across as older than her 54 years are the attempts at jokes about technology - hashtag jokes are never funny outside of Twitter, and Viva Forever! has a whole run of them from Hatty Preston's Minty; and at times I could swear words like "Google!" were just getting chucked into lines in the hope that they might get a laugh out of familiarity. But there's precious few laughs overall. Lucy Montgomery comes closest to salvaging the creaky jokes as the requisite blousy best friend, but given that I rather like her Radio 4 sketch show I just ended up wishing Montgomery had been given a go at writing the jokes as well as delivering them. And the show never really embraces the silliness of trying to crowbar pop songs into a narrative: The most fun moment of this kind is the audience's collective groan as Angel tells Viva he's written a song especially for her, and everyone can see the title track coming. (Everyone except Penny, who expected "2 Become 1" - actually that was next, performed by Triplett and Slater, but largely drowned out by the audience singing along. Possibly in relief at there finally being a song they knew the words to.)

Even the fun and energy of the original Spice Girls songs is largely leached as many of them get slowed down. The audience did seem to be having fun at Viva Forever! but it was largely because they were up for a good time, not because anything about Saunders' script was joyful or original. Whether it's in the form of a few glasses of wine or just an unquashable enthusiasm for the music, if you want to have fun at this show you'll have to bring it with you beforehand.

Viva Forever! by Judy Craymer, Jennifer Saunders, Matt Rowe, Richard Stannard, Victoria Beckham, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, Rodney Jerkins, LaShawn Daniels, Fred Jerkins III, Harvey Mason Jr, Andy Watkins, Paul Wilson, Geri Halliwell, Eliot Kennedy, Clifford Lane, Mary Wood, Rick Nowels and Billy Steinberg is booking until the 1st of June at the Piccadilly Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

No comments:

Post a Comment