Somewhere far along the event horizon, every last hit 80s movie will have been adapted into a stage show – presumably the day they announce Police Academy: The Musical. This new live theatre incarnation of Back to the Future, assembled by most of its original creators and now making its world debut at the Manchester Opera House, was perhaps inevitable and it could easily have been underwhelming. Gratifyingly, then, it’s actually a hugely enjoyable helping of chrononautical hokum, crammed with the sorts of songs that gleefully rhyme “flux capacitor” with “what I’ve been searching for”.
A grand, lavish production, it combines ingenious staging with a story that largely cleaves close to its big screen source. It remains the story of a frustrated youth, Marty McFly, travelling back in time to meet his parents in their schooldays and thereby shape his own destiny. Some canny decisions have been made along the way – it’s shorn of those shooty Libyans, for one – but the central ickyness is still present and correct, albeit tastefully handled. Only rarely does it play fast and loose with the original. It’s marbled through with familiar elements – lines of dialogue, sound effects, musical cues – and it’s particularly slavish when it comes to casting and performance. For the most part, the leads deliver performances close to carbon-copy impersonations of the film’s cast. In particular, as Marty McFly, Olly Dobson seems close to shouting “Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Michael J. Fox”. That’s less effective than Hugh Coles and Rosanna Hyland as Marty’s parents George and Lorraine, who look and sound like the spitting image of Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson but with just enough looseness and fun to inject a little something extra, too.
The real stand-out is Broadway mainstay Roger Bart, who makes for a marvellous, charismatic Doc Brown, at once like and yet quite unlike Christopher Lloyd’s interpretation. If he’s not actually having the time of his life in this role, Kraftwerk-inspired musical number and all, he’s giving an excellent impression of it.
At nearly three hours, the show is nevertheless almost frantically pacy, after a slightly saggy start. At times it could use more space to breathe, and possibly it’s a little over-stuffed with new songs. Though decent in quality, some hint at character depth and development that’s never followed through. The climax doesn’t quite sell the nail-biting peril as well as the film, but it certainly succeeds in being every bit as punch-the-air heartwarming. There are terrific set-pieces and some moments of genuinely impressive showmanship. It’s no surprise that the entire audience is on its feet by the final curtain.
Back to the Future: The Musical does precisely what it sets out to do, dishing out top-notch frothy stage entertainment suitable for all ages, though now with an extra layer of nostalgia – for the 80s as well as the 50s. In the bar during the interval, one young lady could be overheard remarking that she’d never seen the film, but was now worried that she’d be disappointed by it. Yes it’s enough to make you feel ancient, but she’s got a point. To quote one of the show’s new songs, it works.
Photos by Sean Ebsworth Barnes
Back to the Future: The Musical is at Manchester Opera House, until May 17, 2020. For ticket information, click here.