Ironical Peek at Pop Music Scene Offers a Fun Night Out

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Viva Forever! (New musical – directed by Paul Garrington, with book by Jennifer Saunders and music by the Spice Girls): Piccadilly Theatre, London, 13.12.2012. (JPr)

Fiesta time during Viva Forever!

As this was a couple of nights after the official opening it has been difficult not to read or hear others’ reactions to this new musical. One of the worst suggested something like it will possibly share its fate with other turkeys at Christmastime! I therefore sat down in the Piccadilly Theatre with low expectations – but it was all much better than I anticipated.

Those – mainly girls probably – who were teenage fans in the mid-1990s are now approaching (they will feel) middle age and will be all of 30! ‘Girl Power’, though not originated by the Spice Girls, became even more of a cultural phenomenon just before the turn of the twentieth century because of their promotion of self-reliance and assertiveness. In fact most of the young successful women here out together with their iPhones, bags of Christmas shopping and evidence of seeming individual prosperity, can trace some of their confidence in their independence – and the obvious success this has brought them – to the brand of female empowerment the Spice Girls promoted. The downside of this is that it has sadly led to issues such as the current sexualisation of young children, especially girls, but this is not the place of a debate of that sort.

For the original Spice Girls little of this has stood the test of time; their unity was sacrificed to solo careers that came and went and their go-it-alone attitude has been subsumed by ill-chosen celebrity boyfriends, marriage and children. Neither has their music lasted that well and in the early decades of the twenty-first century you will hear more of Marc Bolan’s music from the 1970s during TV commercials and shows than anything by this quintet.There are not a whole lot of songs that you necessarily feel able to sing-along to and that is a bit of a problem for a ‘jukebox musical’.

I recently wrote that Lehár’s The Merry Widow from 1905 was the Mamma Mia! of its time and clearly if you like that Abba-inspired show (that I have only seen in its film version) then there is no reason not to have a great night at Viva Forever!. It isclearly something that families, young women and their mothers can go to if they are looking for a fun night out. It will appeal to men of course, but maybe to some more than others.

So this 2012 Mamma Mia! – with which it shares the same producer, Judy Craymer – is not about the Spice Girls themselves – and surely this was never to be expected? It is written by the ironist supreme, Jennifer Saunders, and you will require a broad sense of humour before you sit down to share in Ms Saunders’ totally cynical attitude to the fame game that is ‘Reality TV’. If you think someone like Simon Cowell is truly interested in his new star-of-the-year and not just in the money they can make then this will clearly not be for you. As Jennifer Saunders’s book hints, Pontins is where they are most likely to end up performing – and not Las Vegas!

Girl band Eternity are part of talent show Starmaker (X Factor, of course) that is being totally manipulated by Johnny (or Simon) and he is abetted by a bitter, over-the-hill judge, Simone (or Sharon) and a dim-witted Essex blonde, Karen (Cheryl or Tulisa). The latter is filming her own reality show and is willing to show them her vajazzle! Bill Ward, Sally Dexter and Tamara Wall hit their targets with some larger-than-life performances in these roles. Hannah John-Kamen, Dominique Provost-Chalkley, Lucy Phelps and Siobhan Athwal are the quartet, Viva (based on Mel C), Holly (a mix of Emma and Victoria), Diamond (Geri) and Luce (Mel B). Eternity perform on the live show but Simone believing they cannot make it as a band selects only Viva to mentor and groom for stardom. Viva is adopted and paralleling this main narrative is the tribulations brought about by her mother’s love of the bottle. Lauren (Sally Ann Triplett) is trying to survive as a single mum, as well as, facing up to the prospect of losing her daughter to fame and wondering how good a mother she has really been to the girl. Cue the duet of Mama that is shoehorned in like many Spice Girls’ songs throughout the evening to counterpoint the comedy drama.

To be honest Jennifer Saunders does seem to have raided her attic for unused French and Saunders skits or Ab Fab material whilst writing the book for the show. Lauren’s best friend, Suzi (the outstanding Lucy Montgomery) is an absolute dead ringer for Patsy and when she does a Zumba class on the houseboat it is hilarious and worth anyone’s ticket money on its own. Actually the problem with the show currently is that there is too much of Lauren and Suzi at the start and not enough Viva and Eternity. We need to see their unity to begin with, so that we can care more about their break up and then – not to give too much away – their reunion at the end … well what did you expect? This could be resolved by having the Spice Girls’ anthem Wannabe performed at the beginning, as well as, in the finale.

I had the feeling throughout that those behind Viva Forever! didn’t always trust in the songs quite enough, often cutting them off before there was a chance for the audience to join in. The exception was the lavish Spanish Fiesta for Spice Up Your Life where Viva is at boot camp and she later engages with music director, Angel, who writes Viva Forever! for her. This is well performed here by Ben Cura with just a solo guitar. Generally John Donovan and his small band of musicians provide a suitably jolly and thrusting accompaniment to all the goings on.

One time when this all came together perfectly was when Lauren and her chauffeur date, Mitch (Simon Slater), find themselves in a Spanish hotel room for an awkward love scene fuelled by rough wine (we’ve all been there!) that is hilarious. They sing – with much audience participation – 2 Become 1 and Lauren emphasises the line ‘Be a little bit wiser baby, put it on, put it on’.

I could go on and I will about some must-see moments: Johnny having his nose hairs plucked by hangers-on, Starmaker’s OTT host who a mash-up of Ant and Dec, the ludicrous – but absolutely spot on – X Factor-style dancers. Jennifer Saunders also tackles her targets with one-liners that come along with machine gun rapidity, ‘Apple, apple, pear. Oh look at you, you are not even a fruit’ says the girls’ stylist on the show. Johnny bickers with Simone that as he gets older he ‘gains authority’ but she, as a women, just ‘gains wrinkles’ and how ‘men age, women rot’. Simone seeking some good TV publicity for Viva remarks at one point ‘She’s tired, but not tired and emotional – what are we doing wrong?’. There are also some misfires such as when Angel says ‘I am not Spanish, I am from Catalunya’ that will go over most heads, blond or not.

Plaudits go to my favourite character of them all, Simone’s gormless assistant, Minty (Hatty Preston) who cannot give an answer to anything without hashtagging or Googling the subject, such as ‘Hashtag, who is Shakespeare?’ – we’ve all met them!

This is not the greatest musical ever written but it is exactly right for the time we live in. I could not fault the energy of the performers who seemed to have as much fun as most did watching, though at about 135 minutes (excluding interval) it is running too long at present. Finally what a marvel Peter MacKintosh’s revolving set is; it goes from houseboat to TV studios to Spanish Villa and back and forth effortlessly and atmospherically. Also his no-expense-spared costumes also make for a suitable colourful and exuberant evening when you can relive your childhood and escape from the cares of the modern world – Say You’ll Be There indeed! When all the cast return for a reprise of Stop and Spice Up Your Life it might even get you on your feet and dancing – and who could want more from a good night out?

Jim Pritchard