Oh dear. The critics have given Viva Forever one of the worst slatings in recent memory, and its resultant poor sales have sent producer Judy Craymer into a tailspin, with rumours of heavy revisions to the book (or its being scrapped altogether) and pulling in one of the Spice Girls themselves to save the show running rampant in Theatreland. And yet seeing the production in the flesh, it feels like the critics were fairly lenient. Viva Forever is the kind of unequivocal disaster that only arrives once a decade, with every element failing altogether, often on multiple levels.
One of the funniest women in television, Jennifer Saunders, has handed in what has to be the worst work of her career in this show’s book. Grabbing the mother-daughter plot from Mamma Mia!, combining it with the silly assistants and showbiz skits from Absolutely Fabulous, and throwing in an extensive and wildly unfunny parody of The X Factor, the script has not a single original feature or laugh-line. Moody Viva (a clearly bored-to-be-here Hannah John-Kamen) is part of a girl group who have made it through to the finals on a television competition show under Sally Dexter’s ageing diva Simone’s dubious eye. In a publicity stunt she selects only Viva to advance, and she must choose between her friends and fame. Poor Sally Ann Triplett is forced to play Viva’s drunk single mother and copes admirably. Viva’s irritating friends predictably turn on her quite aggressively, only to be reunited with no reconciliation or explanation for the finale.
The most disappointing aspect of Viva Forever is the music. For all their “girl power,” the Spice Girls had a distinct lack of hits (and even fewer which lend themselves to a theatrical interpretation), and the production highlights this fact while failing to celebrate their few true pop anthems. Rather than a rousing opener, we’re treated to fifteen minutes of tepid dialogue, and it’s a full forty-five minutes before we hear anything recognisable. “Too Much” emerges out of a conversation between two middle-aged women about there pubic hair (really), while the Act Two starter is left to the Spice Girls Pepsi commercial jingle, with its only lyrics “Generation Next” on an endless loop. The audience needs to wait until the finale to hear what they’ve been waiting for in “Wannabe,” and by then it’s a full two hours and thirty minutes too late.
No one expected Viva Forever to be the next Les Miserables, but even the most loyal Spice Girls fan will be palpably let down by this production. How the production will fare if Craymer continues with her plans to export it to Broadway (where the Spice Girls managed only 4 top ten hits…and “Viva Forever” was never even released as a single) is uncertain, though my guess is it won’t be pretty.