War of the Worlds

Jason Donovan stars in Jeff Wayne's musical, just don't expect it to make any sense

As a 30 foot high killing machine looms over the audience in the Odyssey Arena, with balls of flame shooting out dangerously from its maw as an orchestra and rock band combo thunder through some outrageously melodramatic music. All the while, Richard Burton’s disembodied head floats above the carnage, making observations. It is around this point when you begin to ponder the most profound question of all: 'What on earth is going on?'

An oddity upon it’s initial release in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds has become ever stranger through the years. A double album of overblown progressive rock with an all-star cast telling the story of HG Wells’ celebrated novel, the record was a surprising hit, and has continued to remain in the popular consciousness ever since, spawning hit singles and video game adaptations. Since 2006, Wayne has been touring this extraordinarily grand stage production, which now makes its second visit to Belfast.

This time round the cast features star turns from Jason Donovan as The Artilleryman and Rhydian Roberts as Parson Nathaniel, as well as Justin Hayward reprising his role as The Sung Thoughts of The Journalist. For those unfamiliar with the structure of the story, aliens have landed in 18th century London and all Hell has broken lose. The main star of the show, however, is the music.

In essence, this is a rock-opera, and any dramatic elements are carried by a huge projection screen which is constantly filled with all manner of animations and special effects, some of which are terribly dated. Narration is provided by the late Burton, whose voice is projected through a fairly unconvincing hologram representation of his head.

It all gets pretty confusing as the music swells up, drowning out poor Burton, and anyone having difficulty following the story faces the danger of being completely left behind. The repetitive but somehow random nature of the plot quickly abandons conventional narrative structure. Without an in-depth knowledge of the source material, it’s difficult to work out who any of these characters really are, what they’re doing here, or what they’re saying.

The onstage spectacle more than makes up for any dramatic failings, however: it's a thrilling journey through sound and light which constitutes an all-out assault on the senses. It’s deafeningly loud, strobe lights glide over the audience, mimicking the Martian heat-ray, and things explode and burst into flames. When the aliens' dreaded tripod descends from the ceiling, it’s breath-takingly exciting, even if it actually does very little other than light up and shoot the occasional fireball. (What more do you want?)

The musical performance is lovingly arranged so that every noodly keyboard solo or weird electronic noise is exactly where we remember it from the original record. Hayward gives a sprightly run through of the main theme and ‘Forever Autumn’, whilst Donovan almost intrudes upon David Bowie territory with his theatrical rendition of ‘Brave New World’.

The band, comprised of crack session musicians such as Herbie Flowers and Chris Spedding, are bang on the money, and Jeff Wayne himself cuts an entertaining figure in his own right, enthusiastically conducting the orchestra.

It’s silly, it’s overblown, it’s kitschy, and it shouldn’t work. But 32 years after it first appeared, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is still a grand spectacle, gloriously esoteric and utterly unhinged. Just don’t expect it to make any sense.