Viva Forever!, Piccadilly Theatre, London

The Spice Girls jukebox musical opened to a virtually all-star audience and a keen irony. Its plot centres on a young protagonist, Viva, who is all but consumed by the fiction factory of an uncaring media franchise. However, engineering a hyperbolical sense of “event” for the press night by cordoning off the street in front of the theatre and so forth demonstrates exactly the same omnivorous mentality. That I found Viva Forever! at all tolerable is a tribute to the craft and assiduity of scriptwriter Jennifer Saunders and producer Judy Craymer.

This is a producer’s rather than a director’s show: Craymer hatched the concept to follow up her earlier success Mamma Mia!. The template of that Abba-based compilation has perhaps been followed rather too closely. Plot devices such as the protagonist’s troubled parentage (Viva has been brought up by a single adoptive mother who shuns conventional society) and the use of an exotic location (in Act Two, the action moves gratuitously to Spain) will strike Mamma-maniacs as more than a little familiar. In addition, Saunders revisits old favourite figures from her TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous such as the eccentric personal assistant and the bibulous mum’s-best-friend of a certain age.

Paul Garrington’s staging is quite as lively as required, and musical stalwarts such as Sally Ann Triplett as Viva’s mum and Sally Dexter as her reality-talent-show mentor are matched by newcomer Hannah John-Kamen as Viva herself, sundered from her girl-group mates for solo grooming. The plotting is often audaciously unpleasant for a supposedly feel-good experience, repeatedly showing that in televisual terms “reality” is the biggest one-word lie in the language.

What lets it all down are the songs. Lyrically, these numbers make Benny and Björn of Abba (and their co-lyricist Stig Andersson) look like e e cummings; musically, Martin Koch struggles to find any natural dynamic within each number and to maintain a mix of multiple vocals and instrumentation that doesn’t just dissolve into a blur of blare. The implausible, perfunctory ending (which I had predicted but discounted as far too obvious) makes it apparent that even the supposedly central concept of “girl power” is merely a shibboleth to be recited rather than understood and made to live. There is simply too much manipulation in the air of an evening that is what I rarely, rarely want.

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