Mamma mia! It’s all over for the Spice Girls musical
Intended to be as successful as the Abba musical, the former girl group’s Viva Forever! has flopped in the West End, with huge losses
Stage door: Diamond (Lucy Phelps), Viva (Hannah John-Kamen), Holly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) and Luce (Siobhan Athwal) in Viva Forever!
Stage door: Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm and Geri Halliwell after a Viva Forever! gala performance last December. Photograph: by Dave M Benett/Getty Images
The Piccadilly Theatre on Monday night was full bar a tiny few seats. The audience, bar a few, swayed along happily with the music, and at the end of the night demanded two encores.
The West End audience was made up mostly of girls’ nights out and groups of gay men ready for a sing-song, along with the usual smattering of tourists.
Such are usually the ingredients for success. But Viva Forever! closed ignominiously last night after just seven months and losses of almost €6 million, making it one of the biggest London flops of recent years.
The plan had been so simple: to combine the Spice Girls’ songbook and the talents of the producer Judy Craymer, who brought the Abba tribute Mamma Mia! to the stage so lucratively. The plot copied much of the structure that helped to gross €1.5 billion in ticket sales for Mamma Mia!: the complications of a mother-daughter relationship, love, friendship and loyalty. The show’s central character is Viva, who lives with her adoptive mother on a houseboat in London and spends her time dreaming of stardom with her three girlfriends.
Even though Viva Forever! played to almost full houses in its final weeks, when ticket prices were slashed and the ghoulish and the curious came to watch, it hadn’t done so for most of its short life. Since opening, in November last year, the musical, written by Jennifer Saunders, has spawned a thousand cruel puns, becoming the show that “I rarely, rarely want”.
The verdicts after its press night last December were horrific: “I wanted this terrible show to stop,” said the Telegraph. “It’s almost as if the thing has a death-wish,” said the Daily Mail.
Craymer had a bulletproof reputation with many investors after the success of Mamma Mia!, which opened in 1999. At that time, she remembered in a recent interview, backers could not understand why she wanted to bring the Abba songbook on to the theatre stage. “I had to sell my flat to clear an overdraft in the 90s, and I was telling this man in Barclays that I was doing this musical, and he said, ‘Why Abba and not the Spice Girls?’ Because of course they were huge then,” she said.
The Spice Girls’ fans are now in their 30s – a prime category for London musicals – yet not even nostalgia could entice them. The bad reviews mirrored the snobbery the band endured in their heyday.
“The Spice Girls always get a backlash, but we fight our side, and actually it is good now. We just didn’t have that chance,” said one of the group, Emma Bunton, aka Baby Spice, who is now a mother of two.
Geri Halliwell, who is now a judge on Australia’s Got Talent, displayed a curious form of defiance in the face of the negative reviews, declaring to readers of her blog: “I can hand on heart tell it’s not sh*t.”
For some, Viva Forever! shows the impact that negative reviews can have once they are amplified by social media for an audience that might not have read newspaper critics in the past.
Complaining about the “constant knocking” of the show, Craymer said, “Despite wonderful audiences, standing ovations and positive social media, it has proved very difficult to fight back when such negativity was cast, especially in these very tough economic times.”
Jennifer Saunders has been criticised by influential trade magazine the Stage for producing “a rather trite book which is symbolic of what is, sadly, a lazily put-together show”.
Illustrating the apparent mix-and-match nature of the musical’s preparation, Saunders offered the show’s audiences “Suzi”, an alcohol-drinking, thong-wearing copy of the Absolutely Fabulous character Patsy Stone, played with success over two decades by Joanna Lumley.
The entertainment caravan moves on quickly. The lights have come down on Viva Forever!, but Saunders is already busy again, bringing Absolutely Fabulous to the cinema screen. And it may even be a musical.