We’ll tell you what we want, what we really, really want is a musical that doesn’t feature a gay character with a strange taste in clothing flouncing around the stage trying to get easy laughs just because he’s a camp queen. Stop right now thank you very much.
This isn’t a return to the nineties, we’re back in the seventies. It seems to have become the comedy shorthand du jour in musicals. Maybe it’s time to redress the balance with a musicalisation of Brokeback Mountain?
The book Jennifer Saunders has written for the new Spice Girls musical is so lame it should pick up a crutch, hobble off to the Palladium and understudy Tiny Tim in Scrooge. VF! can’t quite decide whether it’s a celebration of The X Factor or putting a very big satirical boot into a TV show that is already a parody of itself and has rather been done to death. Déjà vu makes an early appearance; didn’t Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop Factor… skewer it successfully four years ago? The moment has passed.*
Four mostly slightly annoying girls with strange tastes in clothing – Viva, Holly, Diamond and Luce – desperately want to win a TV talent show (an ambition whose worth is never questioned, by the way). Cue a judging panel of a generic blonde bimbo plus Johnny (with a strange taste in underpants) and Simone (Sally Dexter) who are barely disguised variants on Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne. The latter is assigned to be mentor for the girls’ group but desperately needs a gimmick to counter falling ratings.
Of course the storyline is a mere pelmet under which to suspend a string of Spice (why was Ginger the only one named after an actual spice?) hits. This it does with occasional success and the knowing playfulness of Mamma Mia! The two shows do share some similarities: where MM! features men dancing in wetsuits VF! has them in eye-wateringly tight rowing gear. Both revolve around questions of parentage and both employ a stage revolve. Both also have decent boat name gags. The houseboat Viva’s mother (UK entrant in the group Prima Donna in 1980’s Eurovision Sally Ann Triplett) occupies is amusingly named “Unthinkable” whereas Mamma Mia!’s boat was called “Waterloo”, practically the only major Abba hit not to feature in the show.
But most of the jokes fell somewhere, and not in the vicinity of the Piccadilly Theatre. A hashtag gag feels tired the first time but that doesn’t stop it coming back for repeated, tiresome airings. Should we be surprised that there is nothing here to make Victoria Beckham crack a smile?
Viva (Hannah John-Kamen) wanders off, apparently alone, to be mentored in Spain. Didn’t anyone from the TV company go with her? She stumbles into a Spanish carnival which gives rise to “Spice Up Your Life”. Colour and movement (Lynne Page choreographs) is paintballed onto the stage for the Big Number. Little of it sticks.
Simon Slater‘s taxi-driver-to-the-stars Mitch is the only character you almost give a hoot about and with Triplett brings convincing awkwardness to “2 Become 1”. Viva and her potential suitor Angel (Ben Cura) provide the only truly affecting moment with a delightfully simple rendition of “Viva Forever”.
Paul Garrington directs some scenes, including a climactic moment in Spain, to be so frenetically overplayed they occasionally tread a dangerous tightrope towards panto causing one to ponder if they are are actually aiming for the galleries of nearby theatres.
Some vocals sound as if they might be enhanced. Ennui may be stifled by listening out for it. Peter McKintosh‘s design locates proceedings in a disused gasholder; a useful reminder that time may also be passed fretting about winter fuel bills.
Has producer Judy Craymer! got another world-wide smash hit on her hands on the scale of her Mamma Mia!? It’s a relatively thin back catalogue of hits to plunder; whatever they were, the Spice Girls weren’t Abba.
But if you want to revisit elements of that show which dances to different tunes and you enjoyed the late woeful episodes of Absolutely Fabulous and wannabe surrounded by an audience, some of whom arrived late, then talked, texted and consumed crisps noisily throughout then this just may be the show for you.
For the record Phil tackled one of the party of women who were late/talking/texting and was met with abuse. A fitting tribute to Girl Power if ever there was one.
Some in the audience seemed amused by hashtag gags and comedic mincing; perhaps there will be enough hen parties to keep this show afloat. Yet even the obligatory post-curtain call disco medley which despite frantic enticements from the cast to get us up on their feet and dance saw nearly everyone remaining resolutely seated. Perhaps that they were more discerning than their behaviour suggested.
There’s something cynical about the whole enterprise. If this show was laying on a sofa it would be too lazy to pick up the remote and switch over to Strictly.
Coronation Street fans will notice that Johnny is portrayed by Bill Ward who played Charlie Stubbs and met an untimely end at the hands of Tracy Barlow brandishing a blunt instrument. One can only hope this show meets a similar fate.
Phil’s neck of the woods (Camden Town) is used as a location. If only it had been Andrew’s neighbourhood Vauxhall, it could have been called Vauxhall Viva Forever! On the wrong side of a few glasses of wine Phil’s tongue stumbled over the title and accidentally rechristened it Beaver Forever!
*Depressingly Harry Hill is said to be working on an X Factor musical too.
It was a tight decision 2 became 1.