I grew up watching 80’s films. They were colourful, tongue-in-cheek, funny and with interesting stories told in a playful manner.
Lately, we’ve seen a revival of the 80’s – perhaps even a renaissance – with shows like Stranger Things and Black Mirror paying homage to the era. Elsewhere, some of the great 80’s films like Akira and The Labyrinth are rumoured to be getting remakes.
Here in Manchester, an 80’s legacy has instead turned its eyes to the stage, but how do you translate a film like Back to the Future to the contained environment of a theatre? How do you reenact a car driving through time, explosions, scaling buildings and even people playing their younger selves? How do you even begin to emulate the joyous, playful boyishness of Michael J. Fox?
These were the questions I had when heading into the Manchester Opera House to see one of my favourite childhood films brought to life.
I wasn’t disappointed.
From the get-go, it was clear that this was a show that respected its origins. It knew that there was a cult fanbase and a childhood nostalgia in many of its viewers, but it also managed to bring modern context to a 35-year old film.
It was self-aware, poking fun at the backwards views of the 50’s, not with an 80’s lense but with a 2020’s lense – earning much laughter from the audience and helping to bring in newer fans whilst still reaching out to the old.
Part of what made Back to the Future‘s transition from old to new was down to the stellar performance from Olly Dobson (Bat out of Hell, The Selfish Giant, Matilda) as Marty McFly. Not only does Dobson have a look that – with a little styling – brought Michael J. Fox’s boyishness to life, but he had Marty McFly’s particular way of talking completely down. The intonation, the well-timed voice cracks, even the words he uses and the way he moved was absolutely exceptional. It can’t have been easy stepping into what was one of Fox’s titular roles but, Dobson did an amazing job.
I would say that perhaps the surprising star of the show was Hugh Coles (The Festival, Defending the Guilty) in what I was even more surprised to find out was his professional stage debut. George Mcfly is – in Marty’s words – spineless, and the fluidity Coles brought to his character’s movements allowed us to really feel that about him. Coles’ physical humour earned some of the biggest laughs, particularly in his altercations with Biff (Aidan Cutler (Showtune, Unfolding Tales)), and like Dobson, he really paid homage to the way Crispin Glover originally played the role.
There is one role in the film that I think could not have been duplicated. Trying to be Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown could have spelt failure for Roger Bart (Desperate Housewives, Good Trouble, Young Frankenstein), as Lloyd was another like Fox with a particularness to his movements and the way he brought his characters to life. Trying to replicate that would have felt too forced, and I was glad to see that Bart brought some of himself to the role.
Where Lloyd could be big and dramatic with his movements and vocalisations on-screen, Bart had a subtlety to his that played on the stage extremely well. The audience were hooked on what he was doing on stage, with Doc Brown luckily getting to claim some of the most enjoyable songs of the show (21st Century was a particular highlight for me).
It goes without saying that the rest of the cast did impressive jobs as well. Rosanna Hyland (School of Rock, Shock Treatment) played the lovelorn Lorraine Baines with vigour and amazing power to her voice. Cedric Neal – who you may recognise from The Voice UK, brought his incredible lungs to the role of Goldie Wilson and Marvin Berry, belting out some fantastic songs at the school dance and the local diner. Finally, Courtney-Mae Briggs (Hamilton, Strictly Ballroom) must have the stamina of an olympian, playing not only Jennifer Parker – Marty’s girlfriend – but also as part of the ensemble cast, keeping up with their changing outfits and appearing in almost every song.
Fans of the film who may be hesitant to go: GO! This isn’t a show trying to be better than or even to perfectly replicate the original. They recognise that this is a different way of storytelling and have embraced that, bringing new light to a tale we all love dearly.
You’ll still see some of the moments that make Back to the Future what it is, whether it was Marty shredding the guitar, Doc Brown’s crazed word-spills, or even, a flying car. But, you’ll also see exceptional singing and dancing.
To answer my initial question of ‘how do you reenact a car driving through time on stage’, well… They did it! They actually did it! I saw a car drive through streets all on stage, and no it wasn’t just a video played in the background – it was 3d.
Not only that, but the DeLorean flew. Don’t ask me how because I am still trying to figure it out but I feel like I should send the stage production team a gift basket that just says “...wow”.
Back to the Future: the Musical continues at the Manchester Opera House until Sunday 17th May before making its move to the West End. Make sure to catch the show now while you can, with tickets available from the link below.