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02 Arena, London, 22 December 2007

Like many a child of the 70s, I had been brainwashed by my dad with Jeff Wayne's epic concept album based on HG Wells' classic SF novel. It was in the car, on the hi-fi and even came with a book with terrific illustrations of Martians in giant walking machines blowing the living crap out of everything in sight.

When you're 10 years old, there's nothing cooler ... but then so were those Doug McClure movies where he wrestled with men in rubber dinosaur costumes, and my great fear as I took my seat for the show at the O2 was that, well... time may have not been kind and it might be a bit rubbish.

War of the Worlds

It didn't start well with a completely superfluous CGI sequence of Martians discussing just why they should invade Earth... aargh! No! Wrong! The reason Wells' Martians are so terrifying is that their motives are ambiguous. They are relentless killers - unstoppable and mysterious. This opening was a like a scene from the bad old days of Doctor Who, but then Jeff Wayne is a man for whom the phrase 'less is more' holds no meaning.

But the show got back on track as Richard Burton appeared in all his holographic glory - looking like the better-educated cousin of Max Headroom, his assured voice rang out throughout the arena and the 46-piece ULLAdubULLA strings kicked off with the familiar 'Dum-Dum-Dummmm!' and I was transported back to my childhood, sitting by the hifi with those oversized headphones and flicking through that book of Martian mayhem.

War of the Worlds

The music for the evening was faultless; the strings were superb and the 10-piece Black Smoke band were note-perfect. To Wayne's credit, he has assembled a cracking line-up including legends like guitarist Chris Spedding, bassist Herbie Flowers (looking alarmingly like Victor Meldrew in his flat cap) who both played on the original album and recreated their parts on the night with aplomb.

They were soon joined by the Moody Blues' Justin Hayward whose voice was the un-doubted highlight of the whole show recreating his part of the clumsily-named 'The sung thoughts of the journalist'. Manfred Mann's Chris Thompson was another singer from the album making his return, and his rendition of 'Thunder Child' actually made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck (and yes, he can still reach those high notes!). It was a shame that no one was able to twist David Essex's arm into getting him to appear, but Alexis James (Les Miserables) was a more than capable replacement, singing with tons of energy.

The low point for me was the 'Spirit of Man' scene with the Parson Nathaniel and his wife Beth. This was always a bit cringe-worthy on the album, but at least you had Phil Lynott belting it out and Phil was cooler than a polar bear on ice. Here we had former lead singer of Asia, John Payne, looking like Ricky Gervais wearing make-up straight from the 'Us-borne My First Book Of Stage Make-Up' (it was really, really, really terrible) and hamming it up like a panto dame. And here is the major problem with the show; it can't decide if it's a straight rock show or a West End musical and tries to do both.

War of the Worlds

Justin Hayward showed how it should be done; singing straight to the audience and letting the enormous visuals behind him tell the story. Poor Payne - who I'm sure was only doing as he was directed - ended up thrashing about on the floor like someone having a fit while jabbing his cross in the air, presumably inspired by Max Von Sydow in 'The Exorcist'. Sinead Quinn had the unenviable task of stepping into Julie Covington's shoes, but she did a great job, not only of singing but also of keeping a straight face while Payne hammed it up.

The visuals behind the band were impressive enough, but the CGI is looking dated already and some of the sequences became repetitive. The Martian tripod is terrific, even if it doesn't do very much apart from add a sense of scale to the proceedings.

But I'm being picky - the music is king and brilliantly executed by a top band who barely stop for the entire running time (the drummer must have biceps like cannonballs). The O2 was packed and there's no doubt that the show will tour again. If you were a fan of the original, go see it... the future belongs to the Martians!

Review and photos by Mark Stay

Jeff Wayne interview

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