Marking the thirtieth anniversary of Jeff Wayne's enduringly popular album, thespian Pip Utton has hired a cavern in the centre of Edinburgh for one month to perform an unprecedented one-man adaptation of Wayne's masterpiece. Sadly, this doesn't involve any frantic, one-man band hi-jinks, as he merely speaks and sings over the quiet CD soundtrack. Even more sadly, the performance feels lacking in enthusiasm and spectacle.
As a spoken word musical composition with doses of singing, the lyrics of Wayne's album aimed to spark the listener's imagination and conjure the events in their mind's eye, and this effect is lost when watching an unimposing actor treading around on a stage with only intermittent red lighting for special effects. This doesn't mean I was expecting model fighting machines (though maybe I was a little bit), but the lack of spectacle, extending to the lack of musicians, weakens this as a live performance, and would be more suited to radio. But then of course, you might as well listen to the original.
Utton does impress with his portrayal of the narrative's three characters (the first-person narrator, the artilleryman and the parson), affecting reasonable cockney and Welsh accents to distinguish them, but I found it distracting that for the majority of the hour he sounds distinctly unlike Richard Burton, not even attempting to mimic the imitable style. As a traditional thesp, Utton emotes when necessary and becomes more invested in select scenes, but most of the time it's just a straightforward recital over an annoyingly quiet backing soundtrack. Even the singing leaves a little to be desired, mainly as Utton has a frequent tendency to miss out the opening lines and look a little awkward before getting back on track, though to be fair I did attend in the preview week when Fringe shows and performers are traditionally some distance short of a perfected piece, and this will likely improve later in the run.
This hour-long show could easily appeal to Jeff Wayne fans and newcomers alike, as Utton's use of the original, unabridged script makes it different enough from the album to be of interest to experienced listeners, though this does restrict the excellent music to a significantly secondary position where it hardly seems to matter most of the time. It's not a show I would feel comfortable recommending, as for those who aren't into it, it could make for an incredibly dull hour, but the bonus of seeing it at Edinburgh before its inevitable arts theatre run means that you get to experience the incredible atmosphere of the caves at the bottom of Niddry Street.
If, like me, you attended the show in anticipation of an over-enthusiastic, lively, manic, exhausting performance, you'll be disappointed. Go to Pappy's Fun Club for that.
'War of the Worlds' is on at the Underbelly's Baby Belly at the bottom of Niddry Street, from 31st July to 24th August 2008 (not 12th) at 4:20pm, lasting one hour. Tickets cost £10 - £12.50 (£9 - £11 concessions).
Jeff Wayne's iconic musical version of HG Wells 'The War of The Worlds', performed with permission of Jeff Wayne Music, in a stunning new stage adaptation as a one man show, by 'The master of the one man play' (The Guardian) , Pip Utton