Friday, April 12, 2013

'Viva Forever!' at the Piccadilly Theatre, 10th April 2013

The first clue to the diabolical nature of the show is the pentagram in the logo....

Y’know... it’d be really easy to just spend an entire article dissecting the rancid carcass of Viva Forever!  

Fun too.....

Ah, let’s just cut to the chase: Viva Forever!, a Spice Girls jukebox musical is atrocious in every single way.  Everything from the script, to the performances, to the costumes, to the staging stinks.  Even the music is bad - and considering the show is basically covers of much loved pop songs - that’s some feat.  At one point I tried desperately to think of something nice about the show, and the best I could do was that the theatre itself was relatively warm and dry. The script is entirely misjudged, aiming lower than the lowest common denominator.  If your idea of laughter is a woman rubbing a scarf between her legs and chortling, or maybe a joke about a feminist’s “thatch” stopping her getting a man then this is the show for you!   The entire thing is half-arsed to the point of insult, populated by paper thin characters - for example, the sum total of the love interest’s personality is that he’s... Spanish.  Clearly Jennifer Saunders cynically figured that the kind of mug who’d fork out to see a Spice Girls musical in the West End must be bereft of any critical faculties and will just hoover up any old trash that’s put in front of them.  

pictured: any old trash
But for all the enormous problems with every single thing on stage, I have bigger fish to fry.  Viva Forever! commits an bigger crime than 'simply' being bad -  namely the systematic perversion of the Spice Girls’ ideology, viciously mutilating all that was positive and uplifting about the group until all that’s left is some "thing", a poor creature sliced apart, shuddering, twitching and bleeding out on stage.  

Granted, the idea that there might be an ideological underpinning worth fighting for in the Spice Girls sounds slightly absurd.  Everyone is familiar with “Girl Power!”, but this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring what the Spice Girls represented.  In the mid 90s, as they dropped Wannabe, an atom bomb of a debut single, they straddled two cultural movements; the cultural ripples of what was coalescing into the New Labour’s “Cool Britannia” and the co-opted aspects of riot grrl: a music scene with an infectiously optimistic feminist philosophy and some outstanding sloganeering.  

The Spice Girls synthesised these elements into a package that was as upbeat as it was liberating.  Granted, it’s hardly rocket science to predict that a group of conventionally attractive women promoting positive, sex-friendly femininity. Sure, they may have essentially represented an unthinking apolitical consumerism, but at least they were explicitly feminist (even saying the F word - OUT LOUD!), it was admittedly shallow stuff, but hey, it was still feminism in the mainstream.  “If you want to be my lover, you’ve got to get with my friends” is hardly the SCUM Manifesto, but even that is a damn sight more than we get these days; the modern female pop archetype being the lonely solo singer singing about various brands of heartbreak.

Though they were assembled from strangers, one of the central planks of the Spice Girls image and Girl Power in general was that they were firm friends that supported each other.  More important than snaring a man was having fun and bonding through a mutual, supportive sisterhood. It was understood (correctly as it turned out) that they couldn’t function as solo artists - these are people that needed each other: anyone trying to go solo would destroy both their own career and that of the larger group - as Geri’s exit and the group’s subsequent struggles proved.  

The message in Britain in the 90s was clear: it’s time for fun, time for a personal reinvention into something footloose and fancy-free.  Feminism can be fun - and young girls worldwide had the Spice Girls right there as a rough blueprint for their own personal revolution.  On a wider scale the mood was buoyant - with the end of the Cold War the world’s problems had been apparently solved, now we just have to decide what our personality is going to be, pop on party hats and anticipate a shiny new millennium.  Such was the sunny, hazy optimistic mood of the mid 90s, as Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed, this was “the end of history”.

Cut to 2013.  And history has very definitely started up again.  Viva Forever! opens it’s doors every night to a miserable, divided Britain where the air is unfit to breathe, where the food is unfit to eat, a country slap bang in the middle of the Final Crisis of Capitalism, a world where the welfare state is being parcelled up and sold off to the lowest bidder.  Sick propaganda has taken root in the public consciousness: the Satanic portrait of the feckless benefit scrounger.  The notion of a self-supporting community, built on a foundation of common human good and empathy has gone up the swanee.  Replacing it is naked self-interest, intolerance and cruelty: “so what if you’ve got a mental age of three, stop scrounging and get a job, scumbag”.  Into this maelstrom strides Viva Forever! - a musical that asserts the divine power of the individual, the sheer joy of being rich and amassing possessions and the beauty of solipsism.

What (I think) Viva Forever! wants to promote are vague platitudes about getting on with your Mum, but if there is subtext or message, it's hampered by the fact that there is barely a text.  Here’s a potted summary of the story: our lead character, the improbably named ‘Viva’ is in a girl band called Eternity (who are very Spice Girls-y).  They enter a televised talent show, and Viva gets selected to advance at the cost of abandoning her bandmates.  She reluctantly does so, and goes on to become famous and successful as a solo artist.  The only downside being that the pop industry is a bit controlling and she doesn’t get much sleep.  So, the solution is to go to Spain and realise the true value of your mother - who you already loved anyway.  In the final scenes she briefly gets back together with her abandoned friends (who are apparently now working in Tesco) and, having ditched the plot entirely, sings a few songs we've already heard.  Aaand curtain.

This is the sum total of human ambition.
During the scene where she ditches her band-mates like so much dead wood you assume that she’s either going to refuse the offer and stick together in solidarity, or if she accepts, quickly realise the error of her ways and the rest of the show is going to be their triumphant reunion.  But this doesn’t happen - indeed, for nearly the entirety of the show the other girls are written out entirely (I’m not even sure if I can remember what they’re called, or if they have names).  When they do return at the end, it’s in what can only be a quasi-dream sequence that jettisons all pretensions at plot and collapses into a jukebox-y variety hour mush.

How can you fuck up a Spice Girls musical up this badly?  The story of a successful solo artist? What was Saunders thinking? This should be a story about the importance of sticking with your friends, not a celebration of the individual.  It’s not as if this is a hard nut to crack - Saunders was in the (slightly) unfairly maligned Spice World for god’s sake.  Just squeeze something like that out on stage and call it a day.

The triumphant, narcissistic individualism rankles almost immediately; when when you see someone hankering after fame and fortune you presume that eventually you’re going to see that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.  But though Viva Forever! makes token nods towards saying “boy, it’s a lot of stress being rich and famous”, it never condemns those desires - they're taken as intrinsically good things, something that everyone should aim for.  An avaricious, predatory desire for money and material possessions is just fine apparently, as long as you do it in just the right way.  

The girl in the middle ditches her loser friends pretty sharpish.
It’s sickening, self-obsessed rubbish; though I seem to have picked an appropriate week for it.  To much jubilation the dread Thatcher has gasped her last.  Lest we forget, this is the woman Geri declared “the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology”, a statement her embarrassed bandmates tried their best to pretend hadn’t happened.  Watching a play yelling at me at the top of its lungs a message of rampant materialism and personal growth through wealth felt like Thatcher’s revenge - from hell’s heart she hath stabbed at me.  

Viva Forever! does succeed in at least one regard - it’s irrevocably poisoned the Spice Girls for me.  Gone are my relatively pleasant memories of shallow but uplifting pop feminism.  In their stead are a raft of bad associations: crass materialism; sacrificing your friends to get ahead; the almighty importance of the individual - I feel like I’ve been through a Clockwork Orange style Ludovico treatment designed to turn me off the Spice Girls.  My teeth began to ache, my head felt like it was in a vice - god, even my bones felt like they were being squeezed!  

It’s impossible to imagine how this could possibly be any worse.  The Piccadilly Theatre is done for now, hopelessly polluted by the crime that happened within.  The only way they can possibly save themselves is to tear the theatre down and salt the earth on which it lies.  But some tumorous stain will forever remain squatting in the memories of those that had the misfortune to sit through this.

No Stars/*****

Viva Forever! is at the Piccadilly Theatre

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