Photo credit: Roger Bart and Olly Dobson (Photo by Sean Ebsworth Barnes)

'Back to the Future' review - sci-fi and theatre blend to create genuine magic

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

​​Great Scott! Roger Bart, whose positive Covid test kept him from opening night earlier this month, is once again bringing his 1.21 gigawatts of zany energy to Doc Brown. I went back to Back to the Future to see Bart in action (after catching his understudy Mark Oxtoby), and, in both versions of the time-space-actor continuum, enjoyed a show that is, indisputably, a fantastic night out.

This West End musical incarnation of the 1985 movie is over a decade in the making, following lengthy development and, of course, a global pandemic, which created a big gap between its Manchester Opera House debut in March 2020 and the London transfer.

Yet if any show can manage a time lag, it's surely this one. Film fans should be reassured that this is a faithful adaptation, with the movie's Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Alan Silvestri all returning for the musical - joined by co-composer Glen Ballard and director John Rando.

Small tweaks make it more palatable for 2021. The Libyan terrorists are gone, and Lorraine is given slightly more agency, although it's best not to examine the gender relations too closely. (Is beating people up really the only way to prove your masculinity and your worth as a partner?)

And, in truth, it's not exactly a musical in the traditional sense. After two viewings, I'd be hard pressed to reproduce much of the original score; the songs that stick are the pop hits used in the movie and triumphantly reprised here, "Johnny B Goode" and "The Power of Love."

Likewise, Chris Bailey's choreography includes explosive tricks, along with a shift from breakdancing to swing, but the numbers never build to a climax. Yet both music and movement do enough to serve the story, and this toe-tapping retro-pastiche fun (Grease meets Footloose) slips down as easily as chocolate milk.

Most effectively, there's a balance of wit and sincerity. When Marty arrives in 1955, he's greeted by an irony-laden number about the wonders of smoking, asbestos, and white men having their cake and eating it too. Doc Brown later dreams of a utopian 21st-century future with no war or disease (hoho). The show trades on nostalgia, while slyly deconstructing it.

The same with the form. A superbly deployed ensemble provides continual backup, but at one point a fourth-wall-breaking Doc Brown suddenly "sees" the dancers and wordlessly ushers them out the door. That goofiness is endearing, and feels like a proper embrace of this new medium.

But there's still a rollicking adventure in here, too, anchored by the Michael J Fox-evoking Olly Dobson. He and Courtney-Mae Briggs are instantly believable as the loved-up teens, providing Marty with added motivation to return home, and Dobson reacts brilliantly to the madness around him - particularly his Oedipal nightmare.

As Doc Brown, Bart goes full vaudeville. With his lightning-fast changes of mood, voices and physical tics, plus snappy ad-libs, he's like Robin Williams at his most playful. But he also finds stillness for a wistful ballad dedicated to the dreamers. It links up these two worlds of sci-fi and theatre.

Rosanna Hyland is an assured, sweet-voiced Lorraine, Hugh Coles a comically awkward and endearing George, Aidan Cutler a satisfying boo-hiss villain, and Cedric Neal provides the musical highlight with the aspirational, gospel-tinged "Gotta Start Somewhere."

And yes, the car is a star too: that iconic DeLorean roaring onto the stage and accelerating to 88 miles per hour to blast through time (if petrol is a bust, perhaps we should all switch to plutonium). The audience is totally immersed in that thrilling ride thanks to a crack creative team (Tim Hatley, Tim Lutkin, Gareth Owen, Finn Ross, and Chris Fisher) and it even extends into the auditorium, with strips of LED lights creating a giant fizzing circuit board. There's also a climactic trick that I genuinely can't explain. Theatre magic: how I've missed it.

Booking has already extended to July next year. Clearly, this time-hopping spectacle with a heart is also the show of the moment.

Photo credit: Roger Bart and Olly Dobson (Photo by Sean Ebsworth Barnes)

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