Martian rock opera: The War Of The Worlds live at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 18 April 2006

Jeff Wayne's The War Of The Worlds album“No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space…”

As a kid, I often heard these words, spoken by actor Richard Burton, rattling out of the speaker of a mono tape recorder in my bedroom. The cassette it was playing was an orange-labelled BASF C120. For the full, immersive experience, I’d go downstairs and play it on my dad’s music centre, which had a lovely rich sound and plenty of bass, and clamp a pair of chunky brown headphones to my ears. It was manna from Mars.

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds – to give the legendary 1978 double album its full title – is as memorable a part of my childhood as Doctor Who and the Saturday morning pictures. How could I pass up the chance to see and hear this epic Victorian sci-fi rock opera performed live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London?

Okay, so our seats were only just south of Heaven (though face on to the stage, we were above the lighting rig and, because of this, had a restricted view of the huge, and very wide, screen at the back), and the bloke sitting next to me didn’t seem to want to give me much space, but this was a great evening out any way I look at it. Part theatre show, part stadium-rock extravaganza, TWOTW dazzled on every level.

Thankfully, there was no 21st century re-imagining of the music. With a spritely looking Jeff Wayne conducting and almost 60 musicians on stage, including original players such as guitarist Chris Spedding and bassist Herbie Flowers, the arrangements were as close to the original recording as any sane person could expect, ’70s sound effects and all (“Ulla!”). If you love the album, you’ll love the live show. And, last night in the Albert Hall, it was LOUD. The goosebumps were out in force and my ears were begging me not to use plugs. I think I got away with it due to the size of the venue.

The production? The lighting was excellent, with flashes seeming to leap off the screen – home to some evocative animated and live-action graphics. The best special effect was undoubtedly the massive Martian fighting machine (created by Jonathan Park, designer of Pink Floyd’s The Wall) that descended from the ceiling two thirds of the way through the first act, its legs slotting neatly between the band. Pyro, lights and smoke brought the machine to life whenever the story spotlighted one of the tripods, and its glowing green ‘eyes’ eventually turned red when the Martians died out (…or did they?).

Criticism? Just a couple of points of note: the new prologue, which showed the Martians plotting their invasion (rendered on the screen in CG animation), wasn’t needed. The album has such an iconic, and perfect, beginning that it felt superfluous to requirements. I really didn’t want to hear the Martians hatching their plans, let alone speaking English, as it reduced them to a Bond-style baddie. The aliens in TWOTW have always felt like proper aliens. They’re scary because they’re mysterious and completely… well, alien.

With the prologue out the way, the real story could begin, and that brings me to my second wee gripe: Richard Burton’s head. As Burton died in 1984, the producers of the show decided to his project his likeness (produced by combining a lookalike actor with prosthetics and digital trickery) on to a large three-dimensional model of a head, which hangs above the stage – similar to what the Eighties musical Time did with Laurence Olivier. It’s quite a good idea, and the likeness is incredible. But, last night at least, the audio didn’t always sync up too well with the video, which was a bit of a shame.

Still, these are minor points and I feel like a grouch for even mentioning them, as the production was fantastic in every other way. Star of the show? That’ll be Alexis James as the artilleryman (replacing David Essex from the album), who stole the gig if the applause at the end was anything to go. For my money, he was as good a replacement for Essex as I could have hoped for and sang a fantastic Brave New World, turning in a vocal that was amazingly close to the classic recording in both sound and phrasing.

Russell Watson as Parson Nathaniel was vocally very good, too – an amazing achievement when you consider that the part was originally played by Phil Lynott. Watson’s physical lurching and stumbling was perhaps a bit over-egged but, hey, this is theatre.

Tara and I spent the interval debating which of the guitarists was Chris Spedding – never mind the Sex Pistols; he was once a Womble, y’know – and we eventually worked it out, which prompted a thought as the final round of applause washed over the venue: if the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, what do you think the chances of the band encoring with a couple of Wombles covers are?

I pledged to pretend that this happened, but I can’t go through with it.

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