First off, I have a confession to make – one I probably shouldn’t make in such a public domain. I am a huge Spice Girls fan and have been since I was eight years old. I’m also partial to a spot of musical theatre. There, I’ve said it. Judge me as you will.
So surely logic dictates I should be dancing in my seat, singing along to the catalogue of hits and first in line to sing the praises of the Spice Girls Musical? Except I didn’t do any of the above.
For the uninitiated, Viva Forever’s plot follows young hopefuls Viva, Diamond, Holly and Luce who get their first taste of stardom when they take part in X-Factor rip-off Starmaker – but when botox-laden judge Simone opts to take just Viva through to the next round, she is catapulted into the fickle world of fame without the support of her band mates or loud-mouthed mother.
Coming from the pen of Jennifer Saunders, the expectations of Spice Girls fans were riding high. But stringing a narrative through a handful of pop hits is no easy task, and Viva Forever’s attempts to score emotional gravitas are half-hearted. Its clichéd exploration of everything from weight and ageing to identity and motherhood repeatedly falls flat as Saunders tries to pack too much in, presenting a plot that repeatedly jars against its healthy bank of musical numbers.
Despite describing Viva Forever! as a departure from a CV packed full of critical successes, Saunders turns her first musical into a poor man’s Absolutely Fabulous – presenting Viva’s mother Lauren and her pal Suzi as a wine-drenched, thong-wearing, middle-aged double act lacking the punchy banter fans of Eddy and Patsy have come to love.
Hannah John-Kamen – making her West End debut playing Viva – is a name to watch, ploughing intensity into her renditions of Mama and Headlines, but her star is dimmed by the one-dimensional dialogue and character she must grapple with.
The musical’s rare moments of intensity come in her duets with Starmaker mentor Simone (played by Olivier Award-winning Sally Dexter). Their acid-tongued confrontation in Who Do You Think You Are? hits an energy level that Viva Forever! generally finds lacking.
The hallmark of a good musical is hard-hitting numbers that uplift an audience (think I Dreamed A Dream and Defying Gravity), no matter how sketchy the plot. But Viva Forever! rarely embellishes its songs with the creativity and energy required to captivate a West End audience. It tiptoes in the footsteps of musical powerhouse Mamma Mia! (which shares its similarly crass storyline) but fails to deliver the slick, showy exuberance that its predecessor achieves.
Luckily for the cast and crew, the audience have been won over before the curtain even goes up. A packed crowd of hen parties, die-hard Girl Power advocates – and the odd boyfriend/husband/son reluctantly dragged along – meet every hit with a chorus of whoops and applause. When Lauren and chubby cabbie Mitch embark on an awkward flirtation to the tune of 2 Become 1, their vocals are all but drowned out by the jubilant masses.
And the costume department certainly know how to cater for their fanbase, dressing their posse of man-candy in tight-fitting lycra before giving cheering females a glimpse of their bare torsos. The musical may have failed to raise my smile, but I certainly found amusement in the cringes and grimaces of the two unfortunate males sitting in front me – if you’re dragging your man along to Viva Forever!, make sure you feed him a few bevvies beforehand.
But after two and a half hours of underwhelming musical numbers – excluding the spirited choreography of a Spanish-themed Spice Up Your Life – the show’s curtain call finally packed a long-awaited punch. The full cast gathered onstage for an energetic megamix of the quintet’s greatest hits and the girls’ Nineties fans were treated to bomber jackets, metallics, and Geri’s iconic Union Jack creation. The final five minutes boasted the vibrancy and panache that had been lacking in so much of the show – it’s just a shame that it waited until the grand finale to reveal its potential.
But aside from the fiery finish, Viva Forever! sadly eschews the Girl Power nostalgia that I (and many) expected it to tap into and instead opts for a misguided attempt to appeal to today’s teens with a tacky combination of hashtags and reality television. Nostalgic Spice Girls fans will no doubt enjoy their vocal workout, but without their enthusiasm the weak plot and uninspiring performances are the first nails in the coffin for Viva Forever!