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REVIEW: The War of the Worlds

Ambitious and energetic musical extravaganza

"No one would have believed, in the early years of the 21st century, that a martian invasion would be staged in the ADC Theatre". Yet this week's ADC late show has well and truly stepped up to the plate with co-directors Ruth Harvey and Jade Franks' production of Jeff Wayne's prog-rock spectacular.

H.G. Wells' 1897 novel has been adapted in multiple ways over the years, but Jeff Wayne's sprawling double-album version has to be one of the most culturally recurrent, with arena and West End versions constantly being performed. The plot follows the Older Journalist (Archie Williams), relaying the story of his younger self's (Alex Hancock) travels through England during the Martian invasion, coming across a series of characters as he tries to find his wife: Carrie (Lara Cosmetatos – fantastic in a criminally underused role). Williams- as a narrator-like figure – provided a firm anchor for the show, his affability shining through to make what could have been a dull character otherwise incredibly likeable. As his counterpart, Hancock grew into the role, providing a solid central focus point for the audience. The Artilleryman, Joseph Folley, delivered a compelling, frenetic performance as a soldier mentally ravaged by war – deluded in his wish and attempts to create a 'Brave New World'. Nathaniel (Christopher Hose) and Beth (Laura Sanders) provided the stand-out moment of the show with their performance of 'The Spirit of Man', providing an emotional centre that could have been at risk of being lost in such a high-concept production.

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The Younger Journalist (Alex Hancock) and the Artilleryman (Joseph Folley) in rehearsal

In fact, it was in these character-based moments where the show really flew – delivering a pathos that was somewhat lost in the sometimes messy ensemble scenes. Credit has to be given to Harvey and Franks in creating a wonderfully energetic version of this story on a Cambridge theatre budget. Without the ability to rely on the holograms, projections and immense budget of the professional production, this production works best when it utilises a minimalist style to hint at the Martian invasion. Dmitry Bashtanov's lighting design was atmospheric, and the presence of the Martian tripod – whilst remaining largely unseen – was eerily-effective. Costume designer Valentin Foley also created some lovely Victoriana-steampunk costumes which delightfully drew the audience into Wells' and Wayne's world.

Of course, the music of 'War of the Worlds' is the major draw for an audience. Largely, this was delivered well under musical director James Mitchell, and at its best was a powerful evocation of the original album, working especially well when the electronic elements were really allowed to go for it: 'The Red Weed' being a particular synthy highlight. Mitchell has done a stellar job at cutting the original score from nearly two-hours to a one-hour version whilst maintaining the integrity of the piece, and only hard-core fans would be able to notice the cuts. The principal singing was exceptionally strong throughout, but at times the ensemble – as with the orchestra – did seem to display some tentativity in their musical performances . This wasn't helped by a sound mix that often resulted in important elements of the score being lost in a wash of sound: somewhat disappointing if you're familiar with the score.

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Nathaniel (Christopher Hose) and Beth (Laura Sanders) provided an emotional centre to the production

This was a problem recurrent in the production- sound and lighting issues throughout often meant that important moments were lost- William's narration was often hidden under the music, and late lighting cues often left the stage unlit for lengthy sections of the play. However, these were technical issues that can hopefully be ironed out as the run continues.

With this in mind, this is a show with a lot of promise and potential: Franks and Harvey have done a highly commendable job of staging a notoriously difficult production. Although sometimes marred by a lack of polish and technical issues, this marvellously dynamic production will delight devotees of Wayne's album, whilst thrilling new fans alike.

3/5 stars.

Images courtesy of Jade Franks.