You only had to shimmy down Denman Street on press night to taste the hype and emotional attachment surrounding Spice Girls and the new musical erected around their songs, Viva Forever!
Adoring fans still in awe of the all-conquering girl group a decade after their unofficial split screamed at the glimpse of a pout or the whiff of a zig-a-zig-ha.
Inside, audience members in the Royal Circle craned their necks for the merest sight of the top of a spicy head. Much was riding on the show.
This, the team behind the project has been eager to reinforce, is not a tale about Spice Girls. Instead, Absolutely Fabulous and Jam And Jerusalem writer Jennifer Saunders has created a book that places Hannah John-Kamen’s eager pop wannabe Viva amid a TV talent show that is in no way X Factor. It features a megalomaniac male mogul, questionable judges coaching contestants and over-produced performances with pointless dancers, but this is Star Maker. Definitely no relation to X Factor.
Saunders, I suspect, has less time for such shows than Victoria Beckham has for all-you-can-eat buffets, as she takes every opportunity to spear the falseness, manipulation and superficiality of the medium, throwing in a swift jab at TV’s issue with aging women and a Kerry Katona-esque judge whose talent is less in her brains and more in her bra.
It seems a little odd at times that a musical using Spice Girls’ songs would throw its girl power so vehemently against singers being outrageously branded to create a saleable image, but it does, and our heroine has to deal with this and being forced to make tough decisions about her friends and family.
Newcomer John-Kamen aptly reflects the fierce loyalty of a teenager dedicated to her mother while trying to make her own way in the world, and make her own mistakes. West End veteran Sally Ann Triplett – the Spice Girls to John-Kamen’s Little Mix – imbues Viva’s drink-loving mum with a touching vulnerability and the sense of a woman afraid to open her heart for fear it might be broken, though we never learn what previous trauma might have caused this.
But what of the songs? Upbeat hits Wannabe and Stop remain largely untouched, the latter boasting original Spicy dance moves sure to please hardcore fans. Spice Up Your Life becomes a bizarre Spanish fiesta boasting giant papier mache puppets, teetering on the brink of hallucination. Most effective are the slower numbers that are easier to fill with emotion. 2 Become 1 reveals a slightly awkward side when sung by a pair of out of practice, middle aged fumblers, Triplett brings the pain and pride of a parent letting their child fly to Goodbye, while John-Kamen and Ben Cura deliver the title track with a still honesty.
There’s fun to be had from Saunders’ script, including a hashtag-loving, emoticon-quoting assistant, not unlike an Ab Fab’s Bubble for the Twitter generation, and a stylist who couldn’t be more stereotypically bitchy without becoming Dancing On Ice’s Jason Gardiner, but segueing into Too Much by discussing unkempt hair of the non-head-based variety is a touch too far for me.
Despite taking a pop at pop, Viva Forever! is as serious as a clown on laughing gas and as weighty as a helium meringue, but it might just Spice up your life… or at the very least, your evening.