Critics have not been kind to Viva Forever!, the musical based on the songs of the Spice Girls, but as Alexis Petridis pointed out in the Guardian, that doesn’t really matter. It is ‘critic-proof’, and nobody in the audience three nights ago looked as if they would care what Michael Billington thought, even if they knew who he was. I went with three friends as much inclined as I am to over-think popular culture, in the hope of a night off for our critical faculties, and very successful it was too. Yes the plot is slight and implausible, the characters are indeed over-drawn to the point of caricature and the music is patchy, but you could say the same about a lot of Verdi. As a pop Christmas panto it works very well.
The story tells of a girl group from East London, four Cinderellas who get to round two of a TV talent contest, where only one of them, Viva, is singled out for stardom. This leads to tension in the group, strained relations with her adoptive mother, fame, love, exploitation, alienation and a trip to the magic land of the Costa del Sol before the all-singing all-dancing happy ending. The fates take the form of the judges: a Cowell-like demon king with a corset under his suit; a barely exaggerated Sharon Osbourne (‘I spend so much time behind smoked glass it’s a wonder I haven’t got rickets’), combining the roles of fairy godmother and wicked witch in her attempts to manipulate Viva; and Karen, a spray-tanned Essex Tinkerbell who what with the killer heels, the false nails and the hair extensions is barely able to move.
The action takes place in some nebulous temporal hinterland between the late 1980s and today with iPad references and Twitter jokes (‘Would you like something to eat – hashtag not my job,’ says Minty the useless PA). The mixture of topical references and old chestnuts is in the pantomime tradition. It all adds to the fun – as do the audience. The long queue for the Ladies in the interval looked like an audition for the show, a vista of sequins and it-bags with a median age of 29 and three quarters. They made a nice change from the usual West End crowd, the coach parties who are only there for something to do, the anxious culture vultures up from the home counties, wondering what to think, and nobody who looks as if they’re having a good time. This lot were doing the actions, swaying, standing up (until told by the ushers to sit down) and after the fantastically energetic closing number we all went out into the night humming happily.