Listening to the cast cranking out Spice Girls covers in Viva Forever! at the Picadilly Theatre in London last night, I found myself thinking that it’s a wonder nobody ever stops and says, "Oh for pity’s sake, can’t we have a rest and sing some Abba?" Just kidding – well, sort of - though, of course, comparisons with Mamma Mia! are hardly unfair.
Judy Craymer, the producer of this show, is the mastermind behind that licence to print money, money, money (more than $2bn) and it was believed that if anyone could pull off a similar trick with the Spice Girls’ oeuvre, it was her.Viva Forever! may have taken €5m in advance bookings but I’ll be surprised if it comes anywhere near matching the success of its forerunner.
It has some moderately amusing moments (“2 Become 1”, say, reimagined as a duet for a couple of out-of-condition mid-lifers shyly getting it together in a Spanish hotel room) and an odd bit that almost twangs the heartstrings (with a plangent mash-up of “Goodbye/Mama/Headlines” for the heroine, mother, and mentor at the end of the first half).
But the evening only achieves the kind of deliriously silly and joyous lift-off that you really, really want from this kind of show – and more than once – at the encore when the company dances up a storm to a “Spice Up Your Life” under flashing lights and in a tightly-drilled orgy of camp, with Sally Ann Triplett’s very likeable mother returning in a droll, glittery version of Geri Halliwell’s famous Union Jack dress.
This points to the fact that 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.
Hannah John-Kamen is appealing and in above-average voice as the eponymous Viva who is forced to choose between fame and friendship with the three other girls in her band when she is picked to continue as a solo act in the next rounds of a TV talent contest.
Paul Garrington’s strenuous production revolves smoothly between the houseboat where Viva lives with her feisty adoptive mother (Ms Triplett) and the studios where she comes under the baleful influence of Sally Dexter’s botoxed bitch-diva Simone, a judge who is like an unholy cross between Sharon Osbourne and the Wicked Queen in Snow White. Dexter does a fine job in showing how genuine emotion fitfully threatens to overtake this woman who, desperate not be dropped from the programme, is avid to exploit any sob-story in Viva’s background.
Somehow, though, the other members of Viva’s band (spiritedly played by Dominique Provost-Chalkley, Lucy Phelps, Siobhan Athwal) get bafflingly sidelined. Sure, Girl Power reasserts itself when they swarm on near the end for a vibrant performance of “Wannabe”. But a rousing celebration of individuality and rebellion feels a tad unearned as the climax to a show that’s so so lacking in any truly original or challenging spark of its own.
Viva Forever! forever? I rather think not.