The Invitation Theatre Company rock ‘War of the Worlds’ at St. Mary’s, Devizes
On hearing of this production my thought process went something like this; War of the Worlds, that’s that old 70s album, right? The Invitation Theatre Company, didn’t they make Jesus Christ Superstar kind of interesting? St. Mary’s, oh, visuals, now you’re talking. Steampunk? Sold.
It was the very end of the nineteenth century when HG Wells penned his tale. Men have a habit of fearing the apocalypse at these times, and Wells gave those fears form in this science fiction story of war between Martians and humanity. It took till 1978 for Jeff Wayne to pick up the ball with his album, and until now for Anthony Brown to take a chance and run with it in Devizes.
I’ve been to the tech rehearsal. I’ve been to the dress rehearsal. I have been playing the album all day. I want to go again. Sold to the barking poet. Utterly.
The visuals first. It’s a medieval church for starters. There are Martian lights in the lofty arches, soft reds and greens tickling the pinnacles, shimmers of Victorian velvet and shifting shadows on the walls. Above the main arch the conductor’s shadow moves like a demon possessed, and the Red Weed (just say no, kids) doth spill across the stone like blood. A lightfest, so it is, a delicious smorgasbord of colour. The set; minimal, just the narrator’s chair on high and a tall tower o’ drums on the other side of the stage. And cogs. Massive wooden cogs. No Martians. No one dressed as aliens. Thank goodness for that. All conveyed with lights, it is, with lights, and sound, and a well placed stare. Clever.
The band take up over half the stage. There are (deep breath) four keyboards, four guitars, four violins, viola, cello, a big fat double bass, percussion, drums, and a conductor. It’s a wonderful score, besides which everything else is mere illustration and tableau, beautiful but secondary to the sound. The band are great, despite the fact that they have played together less times than the fingers on my hand. Flutes from keyboards, sweet violins, drums, and old stone walls drowning in sound. Nice. Very nice indeed.
So nice in fact that when ‘The Eve of War’ kicks in I experience a sudden ‘wild trembling exultation’. I do hope no one noticed. Although one is prone to these reactions it is surely only a man with no soul or rhythm who would not shift a little in his seat at some point during this production. Or shiver at Jemma Brown’s voice. Or at some point during ‘Forever Autumn’. Or at the haunting ‘No Nathaniel, no’ refrain, so sweetly sung by the elegant Mari Webster, in ‘The Spirit of Man’. Oh dear, now I am listening to it again. I blame TITCO. Help me.
Opportunities for serious acting are thin on the ground in this show, but what parts there be are played very well indeed. There’s real talent here. Paul Morgan’s voice of the journalist is reminiscent of Burton and old wirelesses; perfect, archetypal. His reading provides the cues for the music so his timing has to be right. Safe hands, methinks, safe hands. Jonathan Paget; excuse me but is he actually from this century; great look. Chris Worthy as the Artillery Man giving ‘Brave New World’ everything he has…er, why isn’t he acting and singing professionally…just asking. And Ian Diddams, channelling the angst of all humanity with a look, a stance, a hammer and a melodious tone; presence, man, presence. All good. All really good. But my prize for best actor goes unreservedly to Sean Andrews, as the demented and religiously deluded Parson Nathaniel. His duet with Mari Webster is stunning. When he raises his cross and the light hits it…well, what can I say. ‘Tis a moment, to be sure. Well done, that man, take a bow.
What else? Oh yes, great backing vocals, particularly in the chilling ‘Ulla’ Martian song of death. And the women look gorgeous. When you’re done with the dresses, if you’re stuck for somewhere to store them, I might have a bit of cupboard space. Top hat and ribbons? Why thank you, I don’t mind if I do.
Tricky moments? The odd sticky mic. And, to call a spade a spade, moments in the choreography that could do with tweaking. It’s all so complicated, with so many factors to co-ordinate, and very little space. Fingers crossed it will be alright on the night. No, I’m going to stick my neck out and tempt fate by saying that it’s going to be more than alright on the night. It’s going to be glorious.
Special mentions? Anthony Brown, ably assisted by his partner in crime, Jemma, for being brave enough to direct and conduct such a complex production. You may have played a blinder here, sir. And behind the scenes, Tracey Lawrence and her crew; so much sourcing, so much sewing, so much work, and all so very beautiful.
And, finally, the band. That’s some sound you’ve got going on. Thrilling. But also rather challenging, methinks. So break a leg, bow, drumstick, whatever. For you and the sound guys hold this whole show in your hands.
War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s, Devizes, in a nutshell?
For yea verily, it is seriously spot on.
© Gail Foster 15th November 2016