“It is sleek, well-oiled and will surely be burning bright for quite some time”
Even with the help of a 1.21 gigawatts flux capacitor and an unhealthy dose of radioactive plutonium, 88 mph seems a pretty modest speed required to propel a rear-engine ‘DeLorean’ through time. But this piece of eighties iconography has no trouble landing on the stage of the Adelphi Theatre in the twenty-first century, swept along by the sheer force of a gravity-defying publicity machine and the collective, kick-starting power of a couple of thousand fans a night, adding to the lightning bolts of energy that burst throughout the auditorium. To say “Back to the Future: The Musical” is spectacular is an understatement. It showers us with special effects, jaw-dropping sets and transitions, blurs of neon, CGI magic and a hi-wattage, fifties/eighties mash up of a soundtrack. It is sleek, well-oiled and will surely be burning bright for quite some time.
But listen closely and you hear some troublesome knocking in the engine. Not enough to stall it and too quiet to worry the crowd, the flaws are invariably swamped by the energy of the performances. It’s a bizarre adaptation of the film; simultaneously faithful to the original but adding quirks and eccentricities that don’t always sit comfortably with the source material. Doc Brown attracts an ensemble of backing singers and dancers like flies. It’s a lot of fun, is wonderfully appealing to the ears and eyes and it breaks the fourth wall. But you wonder why. The music and lyrics of Alan Silvestri and Glan Ballard are crowd pleasing pastiches, with words and rhymes full of witty observation and humour; but sometimes side-stepping into banality. The almost relentless breaking into song takes away from the narrative and the characterisation; we barely have time to take a breath (so how do the cast cope?) and we miss those moments when we can absorb the concepts of space, time and history that the film allowed us to contemplate.
Yet despite being stripped of at least one dimension of their characters, the cast give impeccable performances. Olly Dobson, as Marty McFly, is a dead ringer for Michael J. Fox and is a fireball of energy. When he arrives back in 1955, the moments when his teenage mother (Rosanna Hyland) has ‘the hots’ for him are played for real laughs. (It is bizarre to note that when the film was originally pitched to Disney, the appalled executives rejected it outright, declaring it to be a movie about incest). More emphasis is placed on Marty’s relationship with his dad, George. Hugh Coles gives one of the stand-out performances; lanky and geeky with angular awkwardness, and often hilarious in the way only a highly skilled mover can re-enact ‘bad dancing’. Roger Bart’s Doc Brown is a contagious concoction of quirks, marred only by his over playing to the audience at times.
The special effects, sets and lighting are as much a lead role as the protagonists. Tim Lutkin’s lighting, Finn Ross’ video design, coupled with Chris Fisher’s illusion design, Gareth Owen’s sound and The Twins FX animatronics cannot fail to produce a breath-taking show. Add on the extra layers of Chris Bailey’s sleek, though sometimes excessive, choreography; and musical director Jim Henson’s thirteen-piece band and you have a display that defies the laws of physics. Like the well-worn bumblebee flight myth (it is a scientific and aerodynamic impossibility that bumblebees can fly – yet fly they do) the unconventional components that make up this vehicle should leave it grounded. It shouldn’t do – but it flies. It soars even. Although not timeless, it will stand the test of time and we’ll still be seeing this show in the West End way back to the future.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella” has been under close scrutiny for some time now. This is in part due to Webber’s vocal stance against the government’s alleged failure to support the Arts during the pandemic. “The government’s actions are forcing theatre and music companies off a cliff as the summer wears on…” he is quoted as saying while rejecting the government’s invitation for “Cinderella” to be singled out as a last-minute part of the Events Research Program. Finally due to open on July 19th, the so-called ‘Freedom Day’, it ran a series of previews before the theatre went dark again for another month. So, long before Cinderella managed to get to the ball, the spotlight was on her every glass-slippered step. It has been a perilous journey, weighed down further by the show unwittingly becoming a litmus test for the recovery of the West End.
Eventually, though, the fairy tale dream comes true. And, in short, it is a true dream. Emerald Fennell’s book turns our concept of the Cinderella myth on its head. For a start Prince Charming has gone awol, presumed dead, and left in his place is the younger brother; Prince Sebastian – as much of a misfit as Cinderella herself. We are in Belleville, the most fairy-tale town that never existed. Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Cinderella is a ragged, rebel Goth in black lipstick. Only when in her company can Sebastian shake off his Royal mantle and truly be himself. To his dismay (and Cinderella’s unspoken concern) his mother has decided to arrange a Royal Wedding for him, purely to boost the town’s reputation. But his heart is set on Cinderella. It is not so much a will-they-won’t-they story, as we kind of know they will in the end. But that doesn’t matter – the story delivers more delightful twists on the way before the final corkscrew that pops the cork, and we can all bathe in the bubbles of joy that wash over us.
It’s a crazy makeover for the familiar story, adorned with David Zippel’s sparkling lyrics and, of course, a score that is well and truly back on form. Filled with a range of emotions and styles it swoons with strings and dips into ballads, taking many other genres under its wing. Leitmotifs and reprises float like feathers which, though intricate, are easily within our grasp and before we know it, we have made them our own. The eyes have as much of a feast as the ears. Gabriela Tylesova’s design, Bruno Poet’s lighting, with JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography and director Laurence Conner’s staging thrust the show into the sovereign state of spectacle. And although the title suggests an out of season pantomime, this is far from it. The stunning leading cast, whilst enjoying the caricatures written for them, shape them into fully formed, loveable characters. The baddies and goodies alike.
The ugly sisters are beautiful. But marvellously dippy. Georgina Castle and Laura Baldwin play the comedy of the sibling rivalry to perfection. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s star turn as the stepmother accentuates the 1980s slang meaning of ‘wicked’. Insanely wonderful and cool she needs no spotlight to let her presence shine across the stage. Rebecca Trehearn’s Queen ransacks the ‘Blackadder’ archives but with so much more nuance and light and shade. Hamilton-Barritt and Trehearn make a dynamic duo, particularly during their show-stopping highlight number, ‘I Know You’ that reveals their seedy pasts in Paris.
The central pair, of course, is Cinderella and Prince Sebastian. Hope Fletcher’s gorgeous, soaring vocals reach the heightened emotions, yet she can slip into character in a beat. The star player, her generosity never pulls focus from her co actors. Sebastian was played sublimely, for this particular performance, by understudy Michael Hamway. His solo show stealing, heart stopping ‘Only You, Lonely You’ drew possibly the longest ovation of the evening. Watch out for the name!
Andrew Lloyd Webber has had his detractors and has often had to weather the storms of his risk taking. Rewriting such a beloved tale such as “Cinderella” is another risk. But boy – it has paid off! It was a long time coming but it’s a ball. Everyone is invited – and everyone should go to it. I’d say be quick about it, but there’s a feeling that this show will be around for quite some time.