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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Piccadilly


Sporty, Scary, Baby, Ginger and Posh – the Spice Girls became dubious icons of femininity for millions of screaming pre-teens in the 1990s. Some may try to claim that they were the collective pretty face of new-wave feminism, but in truth their Girl Power, high-kicks, in-yer-face attitude and ear-worm disposable pop ditties had more to do with clever marketing than emancipation. They were a product – a group of average-looking, modestly talented young women, chosen for their ability to appeal to girls who could relate to them. Their very ordinariness was a selling point: If they can do it, thought their fans, then maybe I can, too. It was a gimmick that made the Spices – and their Svengali, Simon Fuller – very successful and very, very rich.
Now, with an eye to cashing in on the Spice Girls phenomenon all over again, here comes this lame-brained jukebox musical, shakily constructed around their songs. It’s produced by Judy Craymer, who brought us the hit Abba musical Mamma Mia! But where that show boasted a slyly witty book by Catherine Johnson, who when she wrote it was already a proven dramatic talent, this one has been cobbled together by the comic Jennifer Saunders. And as it hobbles along with all the tacky indignity of a hen-night striptease act, it demonstrates two very key points – firstly, that penning a skit or a 30-minute sitcom is a very different proposition from sustaining even the fluffiest, most disposable drama over two-plus hours, and that aside from a handful of hits, the Spice Girls made some truly terrible music.
Helmed by little-known director Paul Garrington (Marianne Elliot, originally slated to direct, subsequently and, it transpires, sensibly pulled out), the production is a lurid and untidy affair, with a cast that really deserves much better. Hannah John-Kamen is Viva, who lives on a ramshackle houseboat with her adoptive mum Lauren (Sally Ann Triplett). She and her three mates are in a girl band called Eternity, and are gearing up for their shot at stardom: the chance to appear on a TV talent show that blatantly spoofs The X Factor. There they are judged by the Simon Cowell-esque Johnny (Bill Ward); his arch rival Simone (Sally Dexter), a cross between Sharon Osbourne and the Wicked Queen from Disney’s Snow White; and an Essex bimbo with Day-Glo orange perma-tan and pneumatic breasts. Their first live appearance goes okay; but Simone decides Viva would be more successful as a solo act, prompting her to leave her mates in the dust. And there’s more trouble in store when Simone, determined to manufacture a sob story that will get viewers voting for Viva, plans to organise a reunion with her birth mother.
It’s all predictably pointless – and a little too close for comfort to the plot of Mamma Mia! which sees the young heroine seeking her long-lost dad. But that would matter much less – especially as the boozed-up audience has only come to sing along and chats loudly through the scenes anyway – if there was some excitement in the musical numbers. Lynne Page’s choreography is serviceable but uninspired, and most of Garrington’s staging is plain dull. It’s demoralising to watch an actor as fine as Dexter straining to make a human being out of the caricature she’s forced to inhabit; and because the action never moves with the requisite zip or zing, every one of Saunders’ feeble jokes lands with a thud. There’s also some ghastly business with shirtless beefcake boys paraded about the stage, at which we are encouraged to whoop and holler – which sits awkwardly alongside the implication that Viva is being forced to sex up her image for TV, while Simone is, as an older woman, terrified of being slung on to the scrapheap. It hardly seems justifiable to complain of the sexual objectification of women while inviting leering salivation over young men. 
The stronger, sassier Spice songs – "Stop," the finale "Wannabe" – are performed with something of the group’s energy and verve. But elsewhere, awkward attempts to give numbers dramatic context – Viva’s mum and an old friend getting it on to "2 Become 1," or a teary farewell between mother and daughter to a mash-up of "Mama" and "Goodbye" – merely seem to frustrate an audience that has come chiefly for a glorified karaoke night. As it is, Viva Forever works neither as that, nor as musical theatre. It’s a garish mess. Stop right now. Thank you very much.


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