Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, The New Generation. National Indoor Arena, Birmingham 7th December 2012

The sci-fi novel “The War of the Worlds” was first published by Herbert George Wells (H.G. Wells) in 1898, and was the forerunner for every alien invasion story since. Wells was the Grandfather of Science Fiction and a true visionary, with his prophecies for many of mankind’s developments in the hundred years since coming to fruition.

In 1978, Jeff Wayne released his musical adaptation of the story as a concept album. A mixture of spoken word and song, alongside an iconic soundtrack, illustrated with beautiful examples of Victorian styled artwork, which now seamlessly fits with the modern day phenomenon of “Steampunk". Wayne surrounded himself with some of the leading artists of the day, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues), Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), David Essex, Julie Covington and many others. The spoken elements of the recording were narrated by Richard Burton as The Journalist, whose deep powerful voice is long embedded in the memory of anyone who has ever heard the immortal opening words of the album “No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th Century…..”

The original album sold by the million and “Forever Autumn” was a classic Top 10 song for Justin Hayward in the summer of 1978. In 1989, “Eve of the War” was remixed by Ben Liebrand including samples from the original album and heavy use of Burton again. Reissues and remixes have continued since the original release.

2006, saw the appearance of the first live action musical to sell out audiences, mixing some of the original performers with new (Phil Lynott died in 1984), and a projection of the head of Richard Burton onto a giant suspended head at the side of the stage using the original voiceover and a Martian Fighting Machine suspended above centre stage as an integral part of the show.

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds has now become a regular event, with an extensive European arena touring schedule for 2012 into 2013. This show is called the “New Generation” and Wayne has made some significant changes to the performance to enhance the experience, whilst still remaining faithful to the original concept and Wells’ story. The “New Generation” features a new reinterpreted soundtrack and is accompanied by the release of a new double CD and Vinyl (Yes VINYL!!) album. The use and adaptation of the original classic artwork into the backdrop animation also reinforces the link to the original.

The updated show continues to play out the story of the invasion of Earth by Martians due to the impending death of their planet and the landing of the initial invading spearhead on Horsell Common and the introduction of the deadly Heat Ray and other weapons. Earth is colonised by the Martians terraforming using the “The Red Weed” with the invasion continuing until their ultimate defeat by bacteria to which they had no defence, is a story as captivating as ever.

The “New Generation” introduces a new cannon of actors appearing in the show, most notably the replacement of Burton by Liam Neeson, Justin Hayward by Marti Pellow (Wet, Wet, Wet), Kerry Ellis (Wicked) and Chris Thompson who appeared on the original album replaced by Will Stapleton (JettBlack) for the part of “The Spirit of Man”. Wayne takes a podium at the centre of the stage to conduct the 48-piece ULLAdubULLA Strings and 10-piece Black Smoke Band.

The replacement of Burton with Liam Neeson as “The Journalist” is probably the most radical change, as Burton’s performance was limited to the original recording, and as Burton passed away in 1984, there was no opportunity to record more material.

Neeson has recorded the narrative, with some changes, and also appears in the show as a hologram within the projections and interacts with the “live” cast, passing a drink to The Artilleryman and lining up on stage at the end with the players and taking his bow. Marti Pellow plays the live action stage work and integrates well with the virtual performance. Neeson is a fine choice for Burton’s replacement whose voice has depth and character, although die-hard fans of the original Burton soundtrack may find the change difficult to accept. Neeson does the role justice and leaves plenty of scope for future development of the role within the show.

For Pellow, whilst his voice is good, inevitable comparisons will be drawn with Justin Hayward, another original artist and a tough act to follow. Pellow carries his part well, and sings “Forever Autumn” to an explosion of autumn leaves blown into the audience. Ricky Wilson plays the “Artilleryman” with energy and humour and his rendition of “Brave New World” is particularly enjoyable.

Jason Donovan switches role from The Artilleryman on the recent tours, to that of Parson Nathaniel, the tormented priest, whose faith is rocked and shattered by the invasion, with his derangement well played by Donovan, whose manic repetitive actions showed a man who had clearly lost his mind. Kerry Ellis supported Donovan as Beth, his wife and made a great duet for “The Spirit of Man”. However, the surprise of the night for me was Will Stapleton as “The Voice of Humanity”, with huge stage presence and a voice of extreme power. “Thunder Child” was a storming, rousing show of strength.

From start to finish the show is filled with a range of special effects, CGI, animation, pyrotechnics (For Health & Safety purposes the photography was restricted to a safe distance to avoid incineration by the deadly Martian Heat Ray) and lighting to accompany the on-stage action and music and is a truly spectacular performance and great development on the previous incarnations of the show. Even with tickets selling at up to 60-odd pounds, the two hour performance was well worth the expense and the show was a sell-out, The New Generation has given a new life and impetus to the classic story, and I expect Wayne will be playing to sold out crowds for years to come.

Act 1 The Coming of the Martians

1. Prequel
2. The Eve of the War
3. Horsell Common and the Heat Ray
4. The Artilleryman and The Fighting Machine
5. Forever Autumn
6. Thunder Child

Act II – The Earth Under the Martians

1. Distant Shores
2. The Red Weed (Part I)
3. The Spirit of Man
4. The Red Weed (Part II)
5. The Artilleryman Returns
6. Brave New World
7. Dead London (Parts I & II)
8. Epilogue (Part I)
9. Epilogue (Part II)

The Cast

Liam Neeson (George Herbert, The Journalist)
Marti Pellow (The Sung Thoughts of The Journalist)
Ricky Wilson (The Artilleryman)
Will Stapleton (The Voice of Humanity)
Kerry Ellis (Beth, Parson Nathaniel’s Wife)
Jason Donovan (Parson Nathaniel)
Anna-Marie Wayne (Carrie, The Journalist’s Fiancée)
Michael Falzon (William Rowland and others)
Lily Osborne (Vera May and other)


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