It’s like Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds meets “Carnival Of Monsters” at the panto, and very silly fun.
Last night I heard some Judoon singing. And it was brilliant. No, really. It was one of the highlights of Doctor Who Live: The Monsters Are Coming, a spectacular stage show quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
A few years ago (okay, decades) I was unfortunate enough ago to see Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure , an embarrasssing panto-style theatre play based on the show, featuring lasers, song and dance routines and slapstick comedy. I like to forget it ever existed. The odd thing is, The Monsters Are Coming shares a lot of the same DNA – live music, monsters stomping around the stage, broad comedy, The Young Ones ' Nigel Planer camping things up shamelessly. But just as the TV show itself regenerated in 2005 into something shiny and new and beloved by the viewing public at large rather than just loyal fans, this stage show is a much more lavish and impressive affair, still cheesy in places, but overall, enormous fun.
But let’s get one thing straight. It's for the kids. And it’s for the kids in a classic Disney ’toon way, rather than a Pixar way. That doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy it, but what it doesn’t do is pander to adults; you have to rediscover that inner child and sense of wonder. And as with the best classic Disney ’toons, before long you’re happy to do just that, unless you’re a surly teenager who doesn’t do that kind of thing (and there's a great gag at their expense in here too, proving the show knows exactly where it's pitched).
Having said that, there are a few nods to older fans in the script, but don’t expect a complex, thought-provoking plot; it's just a framework on which to pin a series of set-pieces. On the other hand, what plot there is works incredibly well in context, and this is definitely “canon”: an unashamed sequel to the Jon Pertwee story “Carnival Of Monsters”, elements of which are worked in seamlessly.
So, what do you get? Well, the conceit is that you’re an audience watching a show being presented by alien ringmaster Vorgenson (Nigel Planer), who has a “minimiser” in which he has trapped various Doctor Who monsters, which he brings on stage (and often out into the audience) to perform for us. Then the Doctor gets wind of the device thanks to Winston Churchill (don’t ask) and plans to shut the device down. But it might not be so simple to do…
There’s a live band on stage (Vorgenson has evolved them from apes, apparently), conducted by Ben Foster, the arranger of the TV show’s music, and a mesmerising presence in himself – from behind, as he conducts, he looks like Tennant’s Doctor possessed by the spirit of Animal from The Muppets . Unlike at the Doctor Who proms, there’s no full orchestra, but rather a leaner, rock-style band, and the familiar themes from the show have been re-arranged to suit. The result is extraordinary: at times it’s all prog rock, like Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds ; at others it's cool and jazzy; at others it's pure Queen . And that Judoon song… well, to be honest, they don’t really sing, they just grunt along in their usual fashion, but it’s wonderfully bonkers. In fact, we demand a CD release of these arrangements as soon as possible.
Matt Smith is only present in video footage (though he was there in person on the opening night, he wasn’t on stage, just being mobbed by fans in the stands) but honestly, the footage is so well integrated you feel 100% like he’s part of proceedings, especially as the tricks they use to place him in the action become steadily more ingenious (his final “appearance” is breathtakingly authentic). Matt himself is simply marvellous in the clips, and the dialogue is as sharp as you'd expect in the TV show, with at least three quotable gems.
The main problem with the show is the structure. It’s starts off very low key, and takes a while to get into gear (it doesn’t truly do so until Matt’s first appearance) and Vorgenson’s entrance and first few scenes lack a certain clout. Planer did improve rapidly as the show wore on, though, so maybe this was partly first night jitters, but it just feels like the show needs to burst onto the stage with a bit more swagger.
And the monster appearances do threaten to get a bit samey. Vorgenson releases them from the Minimiser, they run round the auditorium a bit, then go back in the minimiser. Luckily, most of the monster appearances come with some sort of gimmick that livens up each set-piece (the aforementioned Judoon, the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Winders fare particularly well), but a couple – the Vampires Of Venice and the Clockwork Robots – feel like they're putting in token appearances because the costumes were available. As for the Weeping Angels… well, I'm saying nothing so I don’t ruin the surprise, but their segment is just stunningly good.
It all builds to an explosive, laser-fuelled climax and a breathtaking appearance from a particular Dalek that sent the kids wild. Oh, and the kid behind us LOVED Winston Churchill. Who says the show has lost its ability to educate as well as entertain?
Avoid at all costs if using the “Doctor Who” and “romp” in the same sentence makes you shudder, but if you have some children to drag along, or a child who refuses to grow up inside you, it's great spectacle.
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