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