Thursday 31 August 2023

Review: Back To The Future - The Musical

Back To The Future:
The Musical

London Adelphi Theatre / Saturday, 05 August 2023
Stage Manager Gaz Wall / Director John Rando / Musical Director Jim Henson (not that one)
140 mins (exc. interval) / Trailer

I am not, as regular readers will be more than aware, A Theatre Reviewer*1, hence the immediate shift here from detached critical oversight to first-person blog. However, beloved cinematic connections endured with today's subject, combined with a day out in London*2 and the 2023 ethos of forcing myself to write about Stuff*3, resulting in a showery afternoon Down The Strand*4 and a journey Back... To The Future.

When restless 80s suburban teenager Marty Mcfly (Ben Joyce) gets a call to assist his friend the eccentric professor Doc Brown (Gary Trainor) one night, he's astounded to find him in possession of a working time-machine. But Marty is even more alarmed when he finds himself thirty years in the past, and has endangered his own existence by disrupting the first meeting of his parents Lorraine (Amber Davies) and George (Cameron McAllister). With the time-machine out of power, how can our hero get back to 1985 and his girlfriend Jennifer (Sophie Naglik)? Will it be possible to not only restore the future, but to make it better? And how can town-bully Biff (Harry Jobson) and school principal Mr Strickland (Adam Margilewski) both be such a pain in two time-zones?


So here's the thing. Robert Zemeckis's 1985 film Back To The Future is 1h56m of perfectly paced storytelling. It's immaculately structured with not a frame to spare. Everything we see and hear is building - linearly or otherwise - into an exemplary whole that rewards first and repeated viewings alike. It is a masterpiece. John Rando's 2020 stage adaptation of Back To The Future is 2h20m of structurally the same story, which also has characters frequently bursting into a three-verse song to describe a moment's inner monologue (that's fine, it is a musical). The time spent in verse accounts for significantly more than the extra 24 minutes between the two versions. The upshot of this is that whenever a secondary character has their go in the literal limelight, that's happening at the expense of the quieter story beats - the ones which elevated the movie to more than a standard adventure flick. As a result, some of these smaller points are rushed, some are glossed over and some are jettisoned completely. And while this never derails the core narrative, it's unclear whether an audience watching BTTF for the first time on the stage would actually be able to clearly follow what's going on, amid the noise and cut-corners.

As you'd hope/expect, the film's diegetic songs The Power Of Love, Earth Angel, Johnny B. Goode and Back In Time are all present and correct*5, and all performed immaculately under Jim Henson's auspices in the understage orchestra pit. While the production features more than an admirable amount of Alan Silvestri's iconic original score, for the very most part that soundtrack is entirely separate from the new musical-numbers. With the exception of the key musical motif which sneaks its lyric-ed way into Only A Matter Of Time and its reprises (and a separate refrain from the same theme which sneaks in once), the new songs - musically - feel like they could have been written for any stage-show, and were crowbarred to fit this one by virtue of their lyrics. Although at the same time, it's the dialogue between which tackles the actual narrative (again, if a newcomer were to try and glean the plot from the cast recording, they'd come unstuck pretty quickly). The songs themselves are great, I hasten to add. Only A Matter Of Time counterpoints with Got No Future, while Teach Him A Lesson dovetails boldly back into Something About That Boy. But the newly-penned soundtrack overall doesn't have its own stylistic through-thread, which you'd be forgiven for considering quite an important part of A Stage Musical. Collectively, this is a mish-mash of rock'n'roll, synth pop and full-on show tunes. Silvestri's score doesn't quite manage to thread these together, but it does act as a musical anchor, the base point which can be returned to at plot-specific moments of critical importance.

And of course when you go to see a West End stage show, you expect to see performances worthy of A West End Stage Show™. That's certainly what Back To The Future delivers, with wide eyes, gleaming teeth and belting vocals that could shatter a flux capacitor. This works best in conjunction with the deliberately '50s-esque sequences, but often feels more Rydell High than Hill Valley. Never more than two steps from going full jazz-hands (and occasionally doing that anyway), the enthusiasm certainly can't be faulted, even if some members of the cast seem more to determined to segue between overly earnest middle-distance yodelling and intricately parodic impersonations of their big-screen counterparts. The end result always works well on the boards, but can remind the audience more of the screen-characters they're not watching treading them.

So the storytelling here is erratic, the musical style is haphazard and the performances border on distracting. Naturally, there's only one conclusion I can come to.
Back To The Future The Musical is nothing short of brilliant. Absolutely. Brilliant.


Put simply, there has never been a more flawless collaboration of performance, musicianship, physical sets, digital projection, razor-sharp lighting, and surgically precise off-stage co-ordination*6. When all of these come together in Back To The Future The Musical the effect is jaw-dropping, way more than the sum of its parts. This is the kind of magic that only theatre can bring to life, because it's happening in real-time and real-space as the audience watches agog. When the DeLorean first appears, it gets a huge round of applause. And do bear in mind that almost everybody in the theatre is watching this for the first time, it's not Rocky Horror where their interactivity is cued up - this is just the energy that washes out into the audience. We applauded a prop. By the time of the final curtain, we were giving that prop a standing ovation.

The device at the core of the live presentation (other than the DeLorean) is the huge central section of the stage that rotates to reveal new props and scenery. Not only is this a quick and effective means of carrying out the many scene changes (with technicians backstage constantly cueing up the next location), it's used to maximum effect in conjunction with the dual projection in simulating the high-speed action scenes. You will believe you're watching a car approach 88mph on a theatre stage, and you will believe you're seeing that from switching camera angles. It is awe-inspiring and perfectly executed. But on a more subconscious level, this central area echoes the movement of a traditional clock-face, and its rotation is representative of Marty having a time-machine at his disposal while suddenly finding that the clock is against him. This is a decision that's been made for maximum thematic enjoyment, an indication that every aspect of the physical production has been meticulously plotted out for aesthetics as well as practicality. While some scene changes take place under cover of darkness, more occur in front of the audience's eyes. The show doesn't slow down for these and it's all part of the experience - a feature, not a bug. The continuous efficiency with which this happens is nothing short of amazing; Back To The Future The Musical uses three-dimensional space to its fullest extent*7.

Although I've griped above about some of the performances, they do come together perfectly, and credit is fully due to Ben Joyce as Marty McFly, who keeps Michael J. Fox's exasperated soul of the character intact while still managing to add his own idiosyncrasies as an actor, without the two sides ever clashing. And extra, extra points must be awarded to Gary Trainor as Doctor Emmet Brown, who immerses himself in the role so perfectly that whether he's delivering dialogue from the film script or the sections written for this adaptation, with each shrug and shriek you don't just feel Christopher Lloyd, but Actual Doc Actual Brown. Everything about Trainor's turn is beautifully on-point and makes for an electrifying experience. The pair proudly, and rightfully, take centre-stage here.


This is certainly not a cheap night out*8, and for the majority of readers London isn't readily accessible, but I seriously recommend anyone wanting to see the show to do so at the Adelphi Theatre. Commercial logic suggests there'll be a touring version at some point, but sheer practical viability dictates that a 'mobile' presentation will necessarily lose its greatest aspects. Back To The Future isn't just presented at The Adelphi, it inhabits the auditorium on a more fundamental level, surrounding the audience in the stalls and filling the field of vision for everyone else. The theatre is more than just a stage. This intricate physical and mechanical setup is the show in its fullest form, and can't be re-assembled in the local Theatre Royal for a three-night run.

Overall, there are structural hurdles to be cleared and while that's managed, those obstacles are still visible*9. It's not that Back To The Future The Musical shouldn't work, more that it was always going to be a monumentally tall order to do the film justice. John Rando's stage adaptation takes this tall order and surpasses it, with force of will and the infectious commitment of its cast and crew. Like any adventure, there are perils and there are pitfalls, but the greatest trick the show pulls is having its audience walk out onto the Strand with a spring in their step and the feeling that it all looked so easy.

As with any artistic endeavour, precision, dedication and belief all play their part, but sometimes even the sheer joy of the thing is enough...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Indeed, on the most recent occasion I attempted a theatrical deconstruction, the resulting piece spent almost more time complaining about the bricks-and-mortar venue than it did the actual production. Although the two were intertwined so I feel justified. [ BACK ]

*2 Apart from anything else, the only three entertainment properties to have tempted me back to the capital this year have been Star Wars, Indiana Jones and now Back To The Future; given that these are my all-time favourites, it feels appropriate that the stage production should be analysed here to some extent... [ BACK ]

*3 And yet I'm very aware that it's been over three months since my check-in at the Minack Theatre for a concert by The Fisherman's Friends and no review has surfaced. But how to I collate words for a perfect combination of venue and performance which left me speechless? I still don't know. Hence. [ BACK ]

*4 Have one banana. [ BACK ]

*5 Mister Sandman seems notable by its absence, even if Marty's arrival in 1955 no longer features that same town square sequence of events when transferred to the stage. Although the song does make an appearance in the 'Radio Hill Valley' soundtrack which is played in the auditorium during the interval. [ BACK ]

*6 When I say 'there's never been', I mean 'I have never seen one'. Like I said, I'm not 'theatre-people', but I did dally briefly with crew-work in my much-younger days, and I know how much precision and graft goes on backstage with even the most vanilla of productions. Back To The Future The Musical is next, next level. [ BACK ]

*7 I also love that this telling of a story from 1985 about a kid travelling back to the '50s could not have been told on stage in this form until well in to the 21st century. The technology - practical as well as digital - didn't exist at this level of quality and accessibility to produce this show earlier; as if the past, and the past-past had been waiting for the future to catch up to timeless imagination. [ BACK ]

*8 Tickets for Back To The Future The Musical are - to be blunt - prohibitively expensive, but the consolation is that you do see where that money is going, no doubt at all. And for the absolute avoidance of doubt, I'm not writing glowing words because I saw this with freebies or comps, I paid cold hard cash and will gladly do so again. [ BACK ]

*9 It's not that I was sceptical about watching this adaptation, but I was certainly wary and the price-tag doesn't exactly encouraging a gamble. You can't take a single escalator on the tube without seeing posters for a dozen West End shows, half of which seem to be stage port-overs of well-received movies from the 80s and 90s (The Bodyguard, Dirty Dancing, Mrs Doubtfire). But Back To The Future isn't just an 80s movie, it's a cultural touchstone. I'd struggled with how the producers were going to bring the story to life in a way which would add more to something that was already perfect. And on August 05, I found out. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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