With an energetic, toe-tapping soundtrack and genuinely jaw-dropping special effects, Back to the Future is an astounding theatrical feast
Starring Olly Dobson, Roger Bart, Hugh Coles, Rosanna Hyland, Cedric Neal, Aidan Cutler, and Courtney-Mae Briggs
There will doubtless be theatregoers who are sceptical at the idea of a stage musical based off the cinematic classic Back to the Future. Firstly, there will be plenty who are bemoaning the lack of truly original shows. Currently on the West End are Frozen, Prince of Egypt, Mary Poppins, The Lion King and Pretty Woman, which are all adapted from films, with Moulin Rouge soon arriving and even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, Matilda and Wicked are adapted from written source materials.
The concern is understandable. Back to the Future is the definition of high-concept. A DeLorean that travels through the space-time vortex, by driving 88 miles an hour through an abandoned parking lot? A lightning strike on the town courthouse? Perving on a girl from a tree branch? A town square, a school dance, a scientific genius’s junk-filled laboratory? The film features set pieces galore, and incredible special effects to achieve on screen, let alone live in the Adelphi night after night. It is with barely-contained glee, however, that the creatives involved manage to show all this, and more, including a bombastic Act 2 opener involving a futuristic spaceship set and a staggering, breath-taking final moment.
However, the long gestation period of this musical (first discussed in 2005 and in active development as far back as 2010 should allay any worries that this is a shameless cash grab opportunity. Furthermore, with the involvement of original screenwriter Bob Gale writing the book and collaborating with Robert Zemeckis, the original director and co-writer of the film, there is a sense of reverence for the original and a clear commitment to producing something that is every bit as charming and entertaining, while not merely being a carbon copy.
It’s very unlikely that many adults existing in modern society would be unaware of the premise of Back to the Future, so ingrained within popular culture as it has become, but it follows the adventures of Marty McFly (originally played by Michael J. Fox), an aimless, disillusioned 17-year-old who resents his feeble father, George, and depressed, alcoholic mother Lorraine, as well as his siblings, who are social and professional failures. While Marty yearns for more, with lofty aspirations for his band, he secretly worries that he will end up just like his parents.
Meeting with his friend, eccentric scientist Doc Brown (originally Christopher Lloyd), a calamitous disaster results in Marty travelling thirty years into the past, to 1955, where he sets off a chain of events that threaten to erase his very existence. Interrupting the story of his parents’ first meeting, Marty teams up with the past version of Doc Brown to ensure that they fall in love, whilst also using his knowledge of a lightning strike to power back up Doc Brown’s time travelling DeLorean and send him back home. Unfortunately, that is just slightly complicated by his father, George, lacking any sort of backbone and is pushed around by school bully Biff in much the same way as he is tormented by boss Biff in the present, and his mother Lorraine finds herself obsessively drawn towards Marty, distracting her from forming any sort of meaningful connection with her future husband.
Even though the musical version follows the same structure and plot as the lauded film (after all, why mess with what works?), it is by no means a carbon copy. Much of this is helped by leads Olly Dobson and Roger Bart bringing their own unique energy to the iconic roles of Marty McFly and Doc Brown instead of merely emulating the film’s portrayals. They capture the essence of what the role is without just giving the audience exactly what they’ve already seen. Similarly, the book knows which lines the audience expects, but still manages to make them feel organic and contextualised, in contrast to Pretty Woman’s book, which is 95% copy and pasted from the movie.
Olly Dobson is charming and high energy throughout, a wholly out of his depth teenager who keeps stumbling into situations and making catastrophic mistakes. Meanwhile, Roger Bart lends even more eccentricity to Doc Brown than Christopher Lloyd, creating a genuinely unpredictable and hilarious on-stage presence which is consistently captivating to watch.
The music is high energy throughout, and helps the musical feel pacy and incredibly feel good. If the DeLorean were capable of being powered through song alone, Chris Bailey’s choreography would ensure Marty’s return within the first few minutes of him appearing in 1955. While they are highly enjoyable to view in context, there aren’t particularly many that stick in the head afterwards (the soundtrack is due for release on November 26th), with the exception of fan-favourite ”The Power of Love”.
Having said that, the musical vocabulary of the show is impressive. Starting the show in a typical 80s fashion, the musical then plays brilliant homage to 50s music as well as soon as Marty has time travelled, though there is still much variety to be found within this. For example, Marty’s duet with George “Put Your Mind to It” is very much an 80s rock sound, and helps demonstrate the influence that Marty has in improving his own father’s life.
This high energy is reflected in other elements of the show. The lighting design is incredible, with a lighting unit resembling circuit boards significantly extending out from the proscenium far into the auditorium. The sets are also varied and engaging, with designer Tim Hatley making extensive use of the fly space. These are only enhanced by Finn Ross’s video design, with projections helping give the stage an illusion of depth that really helps to enhance what is already an impressive physical set design.
That’s not to mention the brilliant on-stage effects that help the show pull off all of its staggering effects. The use of an additional screen at the front of the stage helps to overlay projections and create a new level of depth and immersion. It’s a moment where the actual illusions, designed by Chris Fisher, are enhanced by the lighting and the projections to create something genuinely awe-inspiring. Throughout the show, there are countless moments where this happens seamlessly, which elevate what could have been just alright into a bonafide spectacle.
Back to the Future is incredible for the fans of the film or newcomers alike, and is a definite highlight of the West End. Simply unmissable entertainment, it’s a feel good, exhilarating whirlwind of energy that will leave your face aching after so much smiling. No need for a flux capacitor – just get tickets and this epic, time travelling triumph is yours for the taking.
Back to the Future is currently taking bookings up until July 2022.