Does Spice (girls) add to the variety of life?

A scene from Viva Forever. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A scene from Viva Forever. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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Variety, they always say, is the spice of life, but where does put the Spice Girls? Last night the long-awaited Viva Forever! finally opened in the West End that wraps their back catalogue around a new story about the pursuit and effects of celebrity, and following hard on the heels of last week's opening of The Bodyguard, based both on the Whitney Houston catalogue and a film she once starred in.

As I wrote in my review of The Bodyguard for The Stage, there are currently 22 musicals running in the West End, and eight of them are shows based on pop back catalogues, including these two consecutive arrivals.

Assuming the critics, myself included, managed to get through the security cordons thrown around the Piccadilly Theatre last night (which saw us issued for the first time I've ever known of an access pass to get through the security barriers so that we could actually get to the theatre), you'll be able to read the reviews this morning (and you'll have already been able to read my post-show tweets last night).

And as much as you try to tune out the clamour of comment – negative or positive – about a show before you see it for yourself, some of it inevitably filters through. So I went last night with a lot of trepidation. And that can, of course, sometimes work in a show's favour: hearing so much negative comment, you can unconsciously adjust your expectations

But the big question with this sort of show is always whether critical opinion matters anyway. We blasted We Will Rock You, after all, and that's still going strong more than a decade later. "Only hard-core Queen fans can save it from an early bath," wrote my then Daily Express colleague Robert Gore-Langton when it opened in May 2002, while I myself called the musical a "grim spectacle" and "tacky, trashy tosh" in the Sunday Express.

Those were some of the kinder comments. Michael Coveney, writing in the Daily Mail at the time, named it a "shallow, stupid and totally vacuous new musical". The Mail on Sunday's Georgina Brown agreed that this "dire, dull show" could "easily be summed up in two words: rock bottom". And the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer opined that, far from being guaranteed to blow your mind, We Will Rock You was instead "guaranteed to bore you rigid", concluding "the show is prole-feed at its worst".

Well, there are either more hard-core Queen fans than the Daily Express expected, or the Ben Elton-scripted musical is reaching a wider demographic of what the Telegraph dismissively called 'proles', since it is not only still running but has also regularly run audience awards for favourite show.  So even if the critics are less than favourably disposed to Viva Forever!, its glamorous producer Judy Craymer need not despair just yet.

On the other hand, word of mouth is even more powerful nowadays -- and more quickly distributed -- than it was when We Will Rock You opened. There was no Facebook (launched in 2004) or Twitter (launched in 2006) then. So the world has changed. Would We Will Rock You have survived a Facebook or Twitter backlash?

Those are the places that Viva Forever! and its marketing and PR team will have to look at today, as well as the reviews. Sure, today's papers are bound to be full of pictures of various Spice Girls and their entourages arriving at the theatre. Celebrity – which is actually the subject of Jennifer Saunders's book for the show – is part of the story, both inside and outside the theatre; but a much bigger question is whether that's enough to sell it to the public.

Lisa Martland reviews Viva Forever for The Stage

8 Comments

  1. Are you actually going to comment on the content / performance of this new show or just write an article based on old news about We Will Rock You ?

  2. If it survives the panning by the critics, it won’t be the first show to do that, but as to whether it survives to become a long runner I’m not so sure.
    As you say, the negative word of mouth spreads much faster now, and in current strained times people may rather spend their money on an established vacuous show (of which there are a good few to choose in West End) rather than risk it on one that is getting trashed on social media.

  3. @Where’s the review & @Lee:

    This is not meant to be a review — it’s a BLOG. I use it as a theatrical commentary on matters that interest me, not as a review site. Please re-visit THE STAGE website later to find a review of the show, being published SEPARATELY.

  4. @Mark Shenton
    Then perhaps you should consider revising the title of the post
    ‘Does spice(girls) add to the variety of life?’ which suggests you are going to attempt to answer that question. Fail.

  5. But is it a BLOG or a COLUMN? It was better as a blog – more free, more flexible, more chatty. Now it’s a column, it strives to be Thought of the Day and reads like a cut and paste.

  6. I count 10 musicals with pop back catalougue: The Bodyguard, Thriller, Dreamboats and Petticoats, Jersey Boys, Let It Be, Loserville, Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages, Viva Forever, We Will Rock You.

  7. Technically The Bodyguard is amazing, with a bit of tweaking it can easily be successful and long running. However, Viva Forever will probably be on in London for 1-2 years before ATG decide to take it on tour, as typically the money focused board members of ATG will do as they did with Ghost, dwindling ticket sales means take a cheaper even less attractive (e.g what they did with legally blonde) show on tour to reach a wider audience and make more money.

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