Why Viva Forever didn’t last long
The songs weren’t responsible for the Spice Girls musical’s collapse - the terrible libretto was.
Viva Forever, a jukebox musical inspired by the back catalogue of the Spice Girls, has just shut in the Piccadilly Theatre after only six months, chalking up reported losses of over £5million. Fuelled by morbid curiosity and the early-close promise of a dirt-cheap ticket, I was excited to witness one of the show’s last performances.
The problem doesn’t lie in the songs. Spice Girls cynicism aside, you don’t score nine No.1s without hummable tunes – something the West End has been distinctly lacking in recent years. All it needed was a safe pair of hands to knit them together. And, unfortunately, this is where Viva Forever came undone.
When Mamma Mia producer Judy Craymer announced that comedian Jennifer Saunders would be writing Viva Forever’s libretto, it seemed to be a shrewd decision. In both her sketches with Dawn French and the ever popular Absolutely Fabulous, Saunders displayed her own girl power with intelligent writing that refused to stereotype women, nor demand ‘strong’ male characters.
Within minutes of Viva Forever‘s start, however, I wondered if Saunders had even bothered listening to the songs. The show, which the tells the story of a girl group auditioning for an X Factor-esque talent show, opens with an audition room full of hopefuls singing ‘Wannabe’ (because they’re wannabes, right?). But, as anyone who knows about the Spice Girls can tell you, that 1996 anthem is really all about setting the ground rules for a prospective suitor looking for bit of ‘zigazig ha’.
Every other song (and moment in the plot, for that matter) similarly arrives without any purpose or consequence. Unfortunately, the only breaks from the chaos were the inane dialogue scenes, containing stock characters speaking only in clichés. One young hopeful literally prefaces every sentence with an audible ‘hashtag’.
Throughout the show, Saunders subjects the audience to some dire, snobbish attempts at satirising talent shows and celebrity-obsessed youth – which, in some ways, the Spice Girls, and the era of pop they defined, helped to forge. Indeed, Simon Fuller, who managed the Spice Girls, created Pop Idol, thus birthing the format that would later give us the X Factor. Saunders seems to know this all too well, and spends much of the show looking down her nose at the audience. The first proper number of the evening, ‘Stop’, was met with rapturous applause, before the ‘judges’ proceeded to rip into the performance. ‘How dare you enjoy that?’, seemed to be the message.
Usually, the libretto is a subtle, underappreciated art, but Saunders’ writing is so stridently abysmal it’s plain to see why the show was such a flop.
Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.
Picture: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg and Matt Crockett.