When the curtain came down for the interval at this show, I detected a considerable amount of confusion in my vicinity of the stalls. In particular, the young ladies sitting next to me were baffled by the plot. Since they were in a rather large party spread all around me, they appealed to their leader – Mum, as it turned out - for clarity and explanation. Apparently, the teenagers thought it was a musical ABOUT the Spice Girls, so could not understand the relevance of what had been going on for the previous hour. Mum, however, was able to clear-up the confusion: it is a musical with the songs of the Spice Girls, but NOT about them! So, I hope that helps to make things crystal clear before we proceed, otherwise we may be in for a very long haul.
At the literary end of this musical endeavour is the staggeringly talented Jennifer Saunders – the writer and actor who gave us the TV comedy 'Absolutely Fabulous', among much else besides. And that might lend the impression that this could be an absolutely fabulous show. And, in some ways it actually is – the staging, singing and songs are all good, for example. But not, I am sorry to say, in the writing department, and consequently not in the storyline. The tale is a contrived bit of familiar territory which focuses on 4 girls who have foolishly (in my opinion) submitted themselves to performing on one of those TV talent shows. They get selected to proceed to further stages of the competition, but their judge then decides that only one of the four – Viva - can go on to the final. As we follow Viva on her merry way to stardom, we meet odd PA types, camp designers, brutal and selfish judges and all that usual kind of stuff. Oh, and a lot of maternal angst.
Brought to the stage by the same producer who delivered the highly successful 'Mamma Mia!' to the West End, and has subsequently taken it many leagues beyond, 'Viva Forever' is a fairly classic jukebox musical. The idea being that one takes successful songs by a well-known band or group and laces them up with a story that might vaguely make some kind of sense given that the songs themselves have very different motivations and meaning behind them. In fact, this is not a major problem here. The Spice Girls' songs are tuneful, energetic and punchy, and seem fresh and appealing. And the slower numbers are just as able to hold attention and add the appropriate atmosphere as the more upbeat ones. In general, the songs do seem a fairly good fit with the plot.
The funniest part of Jennifer Saunders' story is when Viva's mum finds herself in a hotel room with her friend Mitch who obviously has more than a good night's sleep in mind. I sensed some sniggering from the younger members of the audience around me during this scene as if they were cringing at the thought of middle-aged people having sex. But I think that was the point of the scene actually, and it did raise the biggest laugh of the evening – there were very few to be had elsewhere. I never felt there was a chance that anyone would inadvertently meet their demise falling about in hysterical laughter in the aisles. In fact, the teenagers around me seemed far more interested in their mobiles than in what was happening on-stage. But it is always possible they were forced-marched to the theatre under duress.
The production values are high, the songs are well-sung and the casting is pretty-much spot on, but the story is lame and the humour is vacuous, almost as if the script has been sanitised. If you love the Spice Girls' songs, this musical may well be for you, but just don't expect to be giggling your way through the bits that fit between those songs.
"There's nothing really wrong with Jennifer Saunders' script, although there are moments where the plot fairly obviously exists solely to crowbar another 90s hit into proceedings...the real problem is the songs. For one thing, there aren't enough memorable hits in a career that lasted for three albums to support two hours of theatre..."
Alexis Petridis for The Guardian
"I’ll tell you what I wanted, what I really, really wanted – I wanted this terrible show to stop...This musical is tawdry, lazy and unedifying."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"The Spice Girls’ songs, with their clever hooks and catchy rhythms, are better at projecting an attitude than fleshing out a dramatic situation and it also indicates marked deficiencies in Jennifer Saunders’ charmless, messy, lacklustre book. Not only does her script rarely give you that necessary gleeful sense of expectancy about where the songs are going to be shoe-horned in, but it’s embarrassingly derivative of Mamma Mia! and looks way past its sell-by date in its utterly surprise-free satiric swipe at X Factor."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"The narrative lumbers along packed with large dollops of dull dialogue, leaving one longing for another musical interlude."
Lisa Martland for The Stage
"There’s not enough infectious silliness or maverick spirit. Only during the encore (which is the evening's highlight) do we get a sense of the camp, irreverent show this might have been."
Henry Hitchings for Evening Standard