Viva Forever has been running at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End since 2012. Based on the music of the Spice Girls. Book by Jennifer Saunders, directed by Paul Garrington.
So it’s been a little quiet around here lately, because I’ve been overseas. By day, I’m an academic, and I’ve been travelling the world talking about popular romance fiction and Fifty Shades of Grey. But there’s no way I’d circumnavigate the globe and not manage to squeeze in a little theatre! I was so busy in the week I was in the USA that I didn’t get a chance to see anything, but now I’m in the UK and my conference is over, so my first stop was the West End.
In retrospect, maybe the cheap tickets were a giveaway that this was not exactly going to be the greatest musical experience of my life. I should have remembered that I don’t particularly like jukebox musicals. But I was 11 when Wannabe first hit the charts in the 1990s – the exact right demographic – and I loved the Spice Girls sick, so when I got the chance to see Viva Forever at a ridiculously tiny price, I took it.
There’s an argument to be made that the structure of the musical is very similar to the structure of pornography: a thin plot connecting together the climactic moments that are the songs. In a good musical, you don’t notice – often because the plot isn’t quite as flimsy, or the songs build to some kind of crescendo rather than seeming to proceed by small algorithmic variation. You get swept away by it, rather than simply waiting for the next song. This is perhaps a large part of why I don’t really like jukebox musicals, because waiting for the next song – for those familiar lyrics – is the attraction, and the story is the distraction. It’s not a narrative form that particularly appeals to me, and sadly, it’s exactly what Viva Forever does.
Viva Forever is set against the backdrop of a reality TV show called Starmaker, one of the many descendants of Simon Cowell’s Idol format. Viva (Hannah John-Kamen), Holly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), Diamond (Lucy Phelps), and Luce (Siobhan Athwal) have formed the girl group Eternity, quite obviously a knockoff version of the Spice Girls, and have been put through to the next round (whatever that next round is – I was never quite clear on the show’s structure). They swear, in true Spice Girls fashion, to be BFFs forever, but disaster strikes when their TV mentor Simone (Sally Dexter) announces that the group cannot proceed, and that she will choose one of them to continue in the competition as a solo artist. She chooses Viva, and the other girls must leave. Inevitably, the friendship that seemed unbreakable begins to fracture as Viva is catapulted towards stardom and her friends are left behind.
I think the reason I felt so let down by this show, despite the fact I already knew coming in that the jukebox musical format did not appeal to me, was because Jennifer Saunders wrote the book, and damn it, I expected more from her. Viva Forever felt very clumsy and crowded. There’s a whole side plot to do with Viva’s mother Lauren (Sally Ann Triplett), her almost-boyfriend Mitch (Simon Slater), and her friend Suzi (Lucy Montgomery, who plays the role with obvious shades of Joanna-Lumley-as-Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous). And then there’s the whole apparatus of the Starmaker show: the three judges, ageing Simone, desperately trying to reclaim her youth and fame through exploiting Viva, the sleazy Johnny (Bill Ward), and the chavvish, fake-tanned Karen (Tamara Wall), as well as all the related cast and crew. There’s a romance between Viva and MD Angel (Ben Cura) which could have been really sweet, but it’s given no time to develop: it feels very tacked on. Likewise, the story of the girls’ friendship got lost, especially in the second act. There’s just too much going on here. Perhaps Saunders is trying to combat that thing that happens in jukebox musicals where the plot gets really thin, but what’s happened is that instead of having one thin plot, there are about seventeen, all functioning as distractions before the next song starts.
Speaking of the songs... sometimes they just didn’t feel relevant to the plot at all. There are numbers in there which should be showstoppers, and they just aren’t. Angel’s softly sung version of Viva Forever was a lovely moment, and when Mitch and Lauren sang 2 Become 1 to each other in the most awkward sex scene ever, it was genuinely hysterical, but others just didn’t seem to be related to the story. Who Do You Think You Are? for example, felt weirdly misplaced and shoehorned in (especially when it would have worked better earlier in the show). Likewise, Mama – wasn’t feeling it. There’s some great moments (like the scene where the ensemble are all dressed in tearaway costumes and transform from faceless corporate types to Camden leisure pirates), but overall, the pizzazz is missing. While the big dance numbers – Wannabe, Stop, and Spice Up Your Life – were fun, they never inspired that feeling you want to get in musicals: the feeling where your hair stands on end and you almost shiver with delight. It should have been ridiculously easy for the cast to encourage the audience to get up and do the Stop dance at the end of the show. Instead, it was very laboured indeed.
And on the subject of the ending – there wasn’t really one. There was no satisfactory conclusion. The show just stopped. With Stop. (There’s a joke. Right there. The show just walked right into it.)
Maybe I’m going to have to come to terms with the fact that jukebox musicals just aren’t for me. Maybe the form just doesn’t work for me, even in the hands of someone like Jennifer Saunders. But I feel like this show has the material to be a smash hit – and god knows I’d love for something like this, with its many female leads and emphasis on that Spice Girls ethos of friendship and girl power, to take off – and it just doesn’t deliver. And that makes me sad. And it makes 11 year old me, who was devoted to the Spice Girls, even sadder.
(Also, apropos of nothing, there is a dude in the ensemble who looks EXACTLY like Steve Hooker. I kept waiting for him to pole vault over something. Seriously, it’s eerie.)