Ever wondered what it would be like to live through the tortuous humiliation of mankind by aliens with minds immeasurably superior to ours? Ever wanted to watch your peers get tossed around like flaccid rag dolls by the snaking tendrils of Martian machinery? Well, my friend, you are in luck.
Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is the rock opera that just won’t die. I attended its “last ever tour” in 2007 and there have been at least two more since. Released in 1978, the concept album – based on HG Wells 1897 novel – is the 32nd best selling album of all time in the UK, spending 209 weeks in the charts. Now it’s been rebooted once again as an “immersive experience” in the heart of the City, incorporating live action, recorded video and virtual reality.
Spanning two floors of commercial space, it’s a vast operation, involving at least a dozen actors and lasting almost two hours. You meet in a pub called The Spirit of Man, which is populated by a giant Martian tripod; when it breathes smoke the colour of your wrist-band, you’re up.
The experience is set six years after the rise and fall of the Martians, by which time alien technology has been incorporated into Victorian society. One implementation of this is an all-singing, all-dancing show allowing revellers to relive the invasion. It’s a fun, kitschy way of immersing you in HG Wells’ world, and helps to explain the slightly janky CGI that makes up a good chunk of the production.
Those familiar with the source material will immediately pick up on the multitude of references. An early scene, for instance, sees the astronomer Ogilvy – the douche who predicted the chances of anything coming from Mars being a million to one – hosting a star-gazing workshop at the Horsell Common Observatory. When you spot an ominous green plume of smoke through your telescope, you know the fan will soon require a thorough sponging down.
Famous scenes are brilliantly recreated – the Martian cylinder unscrewing on the common is wonderfully creepy, while a front-row seat for the sinking of HMS Thunder Child – realised through a virtual reality headset and some other technical wizardry – is genuinely thrilling.
Elsewhere virtual reality is used to transplant you to Victorian England – at one point you and your fellow survivors become top-hatted avatars traipsing through detailed recreations of London streets; the simulation is accomplished enough to pick up on the movements of your individual fingers, although it’s also glitchy enough that some of my peers appeared to be sliding horizontally across the filthy streets.
The experience is held together by a string of spirited performances from a cast who really sell the sense of desperation and dread.
And, of course, there’s the music, remixed and tweaked to fit the scenarios, but still gloriously melodramatic, full of otherworldly sounds that instantly transported me back to my childhood. It’s a strange way to spend an evening, a little rough around the edges, but hugely fun nonetheless.