One giant question hangs over Judy Craymer’s “Viva Forever.” Has her new jukebox tuner done with the Spice Girls back catalog what her “Mamma Mia!” did with Abba? With Jennifer “AbFab” Saunders fashioning famous songs into a script about a girl-band looking for fame in a TV talent search, the answer looked like a “Yes.” In practice, this dismaying show offers a resounding “No.” As one of the girls says in the opening scene, “The judges thought we were a mess and frankly I agree.”
Copying the mother-daughter relationship underpinning “Mamma Mia!,” Saunders sets up a female generations story with adopted daughter Viva (Hannah-John Kamen) who lives on a houseboat with her hippyesque mother Lauren (hard-working Sally-Ann Triplett.)
As the show begins, Viva and her three friends have gotten through a round on an “X Factor”-style show. Virtually indistinguishable from one another in terms of personality — like almost everyone in the show, they don’t have characters, merely characteristics — each of the girls visually presents a vague nod to the different Spice Girls, albeit with four rather than five of them. But then Viva alone is picked to go through to a subsequent round. After a tiny moment’s tussle with her conscience, Viva opts to leave her friends behind.
We’re only about halfway through the first act and what the rest of the limp evening tries to suggest is that Viva’s abandonment of girl-power only leads to disaster as she is manipulated by the evil, ratings-chasing TV-types. So far, so predictable… and so it continues. There’s barely a surprise all night despite scenes of mother-daughter argument/affection dotted along the way.
Saunders’ much-loved specialty is sketch and character-writing. Her lack of experience in long-form writing is painfully clear. The satire is as lazy as it is seriously second-hand. The characters that aren’t re-runs from Saunders’ “Absolutely Fabulous” — the mother’s tall blonde sidekick, the startlingly ditzy assistant — are all instantly recognizable caricatures of Simon Cowell, Sharon Osbourne, etc. But that path is far too well-trodden and the jokes simply not funny enough. Even the hugely partisan opening night crowd was hard pressed to work up more than a few laughs.
More worryingly still, the show has an inability to stick with a tone that might hold the audience. One minute it’s all cheerfully phony fun, the next it’s heavy-handed satire of such things, and then audiences are asked to invest in sudden deep emotions. The most audible sound is the crashing of gears.
The chief problem, however, is that the Spice Girls songs, however bouncy and fun, don’t offer up dramatic potential. In terms of lyrics, they’re mostly slogans, ceaselessly repeated. Two or three times a song neatly echoes a plot dilemma, but there’s none of the wit of “Mamma Mia!” since the material is too slight. And since the Spice Girls were known not for singing but for their presence and fun as a group, isolating Viva robs the show of giving the songs anything approaching their original punch. We keep being told Viva is going to be a star, but since there’s no X-Factor style solo in the Spice catalog, we scarcely believe it.
Helmer Paul Garrington doesn’t shape the material to any particular purpose. The show is kicked along by Howard Harrison’s lighting and Peter McKintosh’s efficient sets, but the whole thing feels staged rather than directed.
As the bitch-diva judge Simone, Sally Dexter growls, snarls and chews the scenery to amusing effect. But while the vast majority of the rest of the cast get points for energy and effort, numbers come and go with bewilderingly little change of temperature until everything wakes up for the inevitable post-plot megamix.
The media presence and epic worldwide sales of the Spice Girls will keep the show afloat during its initial booking period. But local critics have delivered not so much reviews as death notices. The future does not lookbright.