As a child of the 90s The Spice Girls played a huge part in my upbringing. It wasn’t just the music, it was the momentum and power behind the message and global reach of the British girl band that added to the appeal. They were everywhere, there was Spice Girls fever, and girl power was as empowering as it was (in hindsight) catchy and tacky. So why does the new musical, Viva Forever!, based on the songs of The Spice Girls, lack the drive and power that every twenty-something-year-old remembers as being so energising and commanding?
In her programme notes, writer Jennifer Saunders says “… I wanted to bring that all back. That sense of excitement and slight anarchy… They had and still do have an extraordinary energy”. Correct Saunders, so why did you write a musical that throws out the energy and “slight anarchy” for a narrative that is so limp it can barely keep the songs from colliding? “…the songs are so well written that they fitted really neatly into a narrative” Saunders continues, but it’s a pity that when writing her story of a young wannabe pop star just trying to be who she really is, she neglected to engage her imagination for more than a few one lines of comedic value. If you haven’t guessed already, Viva Forever! is a disappointment. Spice up your life? No thanks, I’d rather keep my childhood memories of singing into a hairbrush to The Spice Girls as they are.
The problem with Viva Forever! is that it lacks the momentum and “girl power” that comes to mind when thinking of the movement that The Spice Girls provided. Viva (Hannah John-Kamen) has been given a second chance on the talent contest Star Makers after her group Eternity is rejected by the judges. Simone (Sally Dexter), who needs to up her game to remain a judge on the show spots the drive and talent of Viva and pushes her to increasing heights of stardom and exhaustion. Meanwhile Viva’s mum Lauren (Sally Anne Triplett) wants to be the best mother she can, but as Viva’s adopted parent, she worries that there’s only so far love can go in replacing blood relatives. Keen readers will spot the sense of empowerment for women emerging, as Viva, Simone and Lauren battle to be who they want to be against pressures from those around them. Fame and fortune come at a cost, to family, to friends and to love. Now see Viva Forever! through the tinted glasses of Saturday night viewing of The X Factor and you have the kind of fake and “tits and teeth” glamour that the show produces.
The plot is far too thin, and relies too much upon the audience’s own association with the songs to compensate for the weak narrative. There’s no denying Saunders’s skill with other creative projects, but perhaps Mamma Mia! producer Judy Craymer whose producing hands have brought about Viva Forever! could have sought out theatrical writing talent rather than pursuing the big name that would work well alongside The Spice Girls brand. However the cast, despite the poor narrative is has to work with, is committed and talented. It’s just a shame that none of them really get the chance to shine as dialogue rolls too quickly into song, and the songs are too loosely connected with the narrative to give substance.
So whilst audiences are treated to the likes of ‘Wannabe’, ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ and ‘2 Become 1’, they never fully connect with the production as a whole. Musicals need a sense of upliftingness for the performers to take their audience into the emotion and heightened state that the form is suited to. Viva Forever! struggles to give its performers that chance and whilst a charming and touching moment could be found in ‘Mamma’, blended nicely with the theme of the production, the rest of the catalogue seems weak by comparison.
The thing that strikes me most about Viva Forever! is that it feels too old, as if it is being aimed at a mid-life crisis audience rather than a younger, spicier audience who may have listened to the music in their childhood. Themes of women being who they want to be later in their life, women attempting to come out on top in a man’s world, or finding love as an older woman were contrasted poorly with the idea of a young star in the making, and the struggles she faces. There’s no human connection, aside from a fumbling scene between Triplett’s Lauren and her admirer Mitch (Simon Slater), but otherwise we feel nothing.
Viva Forever! lacks conflict, it lacks any kind of substance to bring about an emotion from the audience, which makes it feel so unbelievably lifeless and fake. Manufactured like the bands and “stars” from the likes of The X-Factor, it is all smiles in front of the camera. What I really, really want, is not a zig-ah-zig-ah, but just some basic principles of theatre engagement – energy, life, and some emotional connection – without which Viva Forever! is soulless. It is telling when the audience seems most engaged within the last ten minutes of the curtain call when a mash-up of Spice Girls songs is thrown together, with flashing lights, choreography and the whole cast. That’s the production we wanted, a bit of power, a bit of kicking, a bit of dancing, not this limpness.
Critics have been proved wrong before with the likes of Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You when audiences kept the momentum of the production rolling year after year through their ticket buying. The same could be true for Viva Forever! if the audiences want to see something that was once so integral to being British – the feeling of being a Spice Girl. I’m just not sure that the seasoned theatre-goer will get much out of it.
Viva Forever! is currently booking at the Piccadilly Theatre until 1 June 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Viva Forever! official website.