Adelphi Theatre, London – Booking until July 2022
Reviewed by Alun Hood
The arrival of a trio of splashy big new musicals in the West End at roughly the same time – the others being Frozen and the ALW Cinderella – feels both like a brave move by producers but also, most importantly, a triumphant V sign (and I don’t necessarily mean ‘victory’) to the pandemic and the chaos, misery and uncertainty it has caused. The last of the three to open, this hyper-caffeinated stage version of, and homage to, Robert Zemeckis’s beloved 1985 time-travelling, sci-fi comedy, may turn out to be the biggest crowd pleaser of the lot, even if it’s probably the least satisfying when judged by the standards of well-crafted stage musicals.
It is certainly the most astonishing in technical terms: I can’t think of any other show in recent memory that has combined computer generated imagery and physical sets to such overwhelming effect. Throw in a stage revolve in near perpetual motion, and a complex lighting rig that extends outside the proscenium and across the auditorium resembling the innards of a computer crossed with a multiple lightning strike, and you’ve got a visual feast. Then there’s the famed DeLorean car, retooled by eccentric scientist Doc Brown to allow 17 year old Marty McFly to travel back in forth in time to avert potential family disasters in small town America, and it’s quite a sight to behold. The frantic, eye-popping time travel sequence near the end of the show is genuinely thrilling. You’ll believe a car can accelerate to such an degree that it smashes through time, that it can fly and even, in a departure from the movie, that it can talk. Well, a bit.
It says much for the performances of Olly Dobson, hugely likeable in the Michael J Fox role, and especially Broadway veteran Roger Bart, as a joyously eccentric Doc Brown, that the car doesn’t feel like it deserves star billing. Dobson carries the show with considerable charm and a pleasant voice, but Bart is the real deal, in a gorgeously funny display of physical quirks, vocal tics and formidable comic timing. He’s outrageous but with an underpinning of truth that pushes this Doc into the realms of the unforgettable. It’s a masterclass in musical comedy performance, and may even improve upon Christopher Lloyd in the original movie.
There is a lot to love in the supporting cast too: Cedric Neal brings formidable comedy chops, delightful stage presence and a glorious, roof-rattling voice to the Diner owner who ends up Mayor of the local town. Rosanna Hyland does really lovely, subtle (for this show) work as Marty’s Mum, world weary and vodka soaked in the 1980s, plausibly morphing back to a more optimistic but still feisty version of herself in the 50s, and again with a voice to die for. Hugh Coles and Aidan Cutler are great fun as, respectively, Marty’s Dad and the town bully.
Where Back To The Future on stage falters slightly is that, for all the flash and spectacle, it never feels like there was ever a really strong reason to turn it into a musical. Certainly not Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard’s pastiche heavy score, which is enjoyable but largely unmemorable, all the songs paling beside the Huey Lewis classic ‘The Power Of Love’ which brings the house down in the second half. Nor Bob Gale’s script, adapted from the screenplay he co-wrote with Zemeckis, which ensures that the audience get all the big moments, laughs and plot points they paid for but never achieves a distinct theatrical life of its own. It does exactly what it says on the tin, no more, no less, but, like the DeLorean, it has a disconcerting stop-start quality that impedes tension and flow, before suddenly taking flight into moments of sheer exhilaration.
John Rando’s direction doesn’t as yet smoothly marry the hi tech stuff with a cartoony go-for-broke, anything-for-a-laugh aesthetic: it’s like watching two shows pull in different directions at once, the lavish spectacle ultimately winning. Structurally, Back To The Future eschews conventional structure (no opening number, an overly busy first half closer that feels like it should have cropped up half way through the preceding act, the much loved “big number” – the aforementioned ‘Power of Love’ – not ending the show but paving the way for a much less distinguished finale) but doesn’t replace it with anything exciting or even coherent. Tim Hatley’s designs, Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook’s orchestrations, Finn Ross’s video design and, above all, Tim Lutkins’s lighting are all world class however.
The whole show is a technicolour eyeful and, even at West End prices, you’ll really be able to see where your money has gone. If it’s not even the best screen-to-stage adaptation of this year, I’ve still no doubt this will make a lot of people very happy, and will keep the Adelphi nicely filled for quite some time. Also, this must have one of the hardest working stage management teams in London; it’s seriously spectacular and a lot of fun