“This is dedicated to all the dreamers out there!” cries Doc Brown as he finally succeeds in his grand experiment: time travel. That sentiment was echoed last night in the curtain call speeches by Colin Ingram, producer of Back to the Future: The Musical, and by Bob Gale — the co-creator of both the 1985 film and this new theatrical incarnation — at a dramatic opening.
Finally bringing this tale to the London stage, following decades of development and an extra pandemic delay, was a triumphant moment for the whole company. But for understudy Mark Oxtoby, who was thrust into the limelight after Roger Bart tested positive for Covid, it must have been an utterly surreal experience.
Not only was Oxtoby suddenly shouldering the production, playing the pivotal role of that dreaming scientist, Doc Brown, on the show’s long-awaited West End press night, but he had to do so in front of the role’s originator, Christopher Lloyd, who took his seat in the stalls to rapturous applause. No pressure!
Also in attendance were the film and stage show’s illustrious creative team — Gale, co-creator and director Robert Zemeckis, and composers Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard — and celebrity guests like Carrie Hope Fletcher and Queen’s Brian May. Plus, this was the very first time that Oxtoby had performed as Doc Brown in front of an audience.
Well great Scott! I’m thrilled to report that not only did Oxtoby acquit himself well, handling with ease a complex production with loads of moving parts (quite literally), he brought 1.21 gigawatts of heart, soul and pure zany energy to the role.
And though truly it’s the beloved movie plot that’s the star here, with claps and cheers for every familiar character, element and quote — from George McFly’s awkward physicality to the iconic DeLorean and “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” — supported by the production’s turbo-charged special effects, we also got to enjoy that age-old theatre tale: the plucky understudy stepping up so that the show could go on.
We will be reviewing the production in full on London Theatre when Bart returns (do check back!), but you’ll be in safe hands if you ever see a performance with Oxtoby, too. There are shades of Lloyd’s eccentric inventor, as he tugs at his wild mane and gabbles scientific theory, but also a childlike glee at his success that’s definitely Oxtoby’s own, as well as goofy slapstick and wry fourth wall-breaking.
That knowingness is one of the charming aspects of this smartly conceived show, but also feeds into Doc Brown’s feverish calculations (is he imagining that dancing chorus line, or do they actually exist in some reality?). Oxtoby added to that with a couple of ad libs, one making a virtue of a slight prop mishap.
Kudos also to Olly Dobson, who inherits Michael J Fox’s role as cool teen Marty McFly, for swiftly establishing chemistry with Oxtoby and making us believe in the all-important friendship between Marty and the Doc. Without that, the show would lose its heart.
Ingram also paid tribute to the West End’s resilience in his oration, and surely there’s no better example than his show soldiering on. It’s been a nightmare year for theatre; now, let’s start to dream again.