In Mamma Mia!, producer Judy Craymer struck theatre gold with a musical that had just enough of a story to cleverly showcase the excellent pop songs of Abba, but her luck has run out with this truly mediocre attempt at doing the same with the Spice Girls’ back catalogue.
Lucy Phelps (Diamond), Hannah John-Kamen (Viva), Dominique Provost-Chalkley (Holly) and Siobhan Athwal (Luce) in Viva Forever at the Piccadilly Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Right from the start, during an overlong first scene which desperately tries to introduce all the characters in one contrived swoop, it is impossible not to make comparisons with its triumphant predecessor. Again the book revolves around a young woman (Viva) on a journey of discovery, of ‘finding herself’ and working out relationships with her mother and close friends. Except that this time there is not a missing father, but an absent birth mother created for some extra dramatic tension.
Much of this is played out in the context of an X Factor-like reality TV show called Starmaker in which Viva initially competes together with her friends until she is persuaded to leave them behind. But will she come to her senses and be reunited with them by the finale?
One of the biggest disappointments is Jennifer Saunders’ rather trite book which is symbolic of what is sadly a lazily put-together show (and that includes the unusually average work of director Paul Garrington, choreographer Lynne Page and production designer Peter McKintosh). Despite massive success on the small screen, Saunders exhibits her lack of experience in writing for the stage. Too many characters are sketchy caricatures or stereotypes, however hard the cast attempts to give them substance. Even the experience and talent of Sally Ann Triplett (as Viva’s mother Lauren) and Sally Dexter’s jaded and manipulative TV judge Simone cannot save the day.
Indeed the narrative lumbers along packed with large dollops of dull dialogue, leaving one longing for another musical interlude. It’s more like an extended Ab Fab sketch mixed with a quick injection of emotional intensity every now and then (there is even one character, a ditsy personal assistant on the TV show, who has all the characteristics of Jane Horrocks’ Bubble).
Occasionally, taking a whole different take on a familiar Spice Girls number to fulfil a dramatic purpose pays off, particularly in Act II when Starmaker musical director Angel sings Viva Forever to, wait for it, Viva (Ben Cura and Hannah John-Kamen both making their West End debuts). And there is some genuine charm and comedy about the moment Lauren and her friend Mitch (a tongue-in-cheek Simon Slater) decide to make 2 Become 1. However, it soon becomes clear that the Spice Girls’ back catalogue is not generally of a high enough standard to be reinterpreted in this way.
Ultimately there is just too much tackiness surrounding the core story for any of the events to be believable, the best example of which is when there is a quick diversion to Simone’s house in Spain where a bizarre carnival street scene arrives from nowhere. It’s as if someone from the props department found a box of paraphenalia in the theatre basement and thought it would make a great scene.
It is only when the ensemble is given the freedom to let their hair down to the upbeat tempo of Stop and Spice Up Your Life during the final bows that Viva Forever really comes alive. At last there is a buzz about the proceedings and some audience members even spontaneously jumped up to dance.
Craymer may have gone out of her way to avoid producing a jukebox musical packed to the brim with energetic covers of original chart-toppers, but that may have been just the the kind of spectacle fans of Girl Power would have relished. In the meantime, they could be sorely disappointed.