Audacious and ambitious: Stornoway does War of The Worlds

“No one would have believed in the last years of the Nineteenth Century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinised, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. 

“Few men even consider the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes. And slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us…”

As the starts of albums go, it’s one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable. 

The words spoken by Richard Burton, falling off into the dark silence, herald the beginning of a musical score like no other. A momentary pause and the strings burst forth, followed closely by the synths, drums and guitar – all with a dramatic urgency you can feel.

Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds concept album, made in the 1970s and inspired by the H.G. Wells Victorian novel, is part of our cultural lexicon. 

It’s part of folklore too as the 1938 radio dramatisation is said to have sparked mass panic. The listening public thought the Orson Welles narration was a news report and that the Martians were invading for real – or so the story goes.

Jeff Wayne later turned his album into a stage show – a complex and visionary piece of musical theatre, which even involved the building of a large-scale Martian Fighting Machine as a prop.

It’s all epic stuff. Historically, culturally, thematically, creatively and practically. Surely no one in their right minds would attempt to put it on in An Lanntair, as a largely amateur production…

Step forward Iain Neosa MacKinnon, who is doing that very thing and putting on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds in Stornoway.

And with two weeks to go until curtain up, he admitted: “I’m totally stressed out!”

Rehearsals, which began in October, are now in the final stages and despite the stress of trying to pull it all together, this is on course to be terrific.

All the musicians and actors involved are working on the fine details of getting it right and this is a production where timings will have to absolutely perfect as the live aspect of the performance will take place against a backdrop of original visuals and recorded sound effects.

On top of a technically challenging score, this is quite an ask.

Every member of the band is putting in many hours of practice every week – they have been practising most nights – and rehearsals focus on getting all the layers to work together. There are so many technical aspects to it that it actually takes four to five hours to set up for rehearsal and about an hour and a half to take everything down again.

But it’s going to have to be perfectly synchronised. No pressure there…

And with the shows looking set to sell out – Friday, March 8 is three-quarters sold out and Saturday, March 9 is two-thirds sold out – the atmosphere is going to be electric. 

For Neosa, who paid for the licence to use the original visuals and sound effects out of his own pocket, this is a passion project. 

And he has assembled quite a cast.

My other half, Jason Laing, is playing electric guitar – I feel like I know every note in the score, I’ve been hearing it so often – and Colin Rankine is his running mate on acoustic guitar. Angie Murray is on bass. Del Gunn is on drums and Alex Tearse is on keys, as is Calum Macdonald. 

Calum Blane will be The Artillery Man, Gordon Smith will be The Voice of Humanity and Rod Morrison will be Parson Nathaniel. Rachel Kennedy will be Beth, the Parson’s wife.

I must also mention Sineag Blane and Anna Murray, who are helping with drama and choreography and other elements of staging.

Neosa said “loads of people turned down parts” in the beginning – either because it wasn’t their thing or it was too big a commitment. 

To have assembled such a good cast despite that, said Neosa, “just goes to show how much talent there is on the island”.

He admitted: “There were a couple of points earlier on where I was tempted to say, ‘sod off, I’ll do it myself in front of a video screen’… I was very stressed. I still am, because I want it to be perfect.”

The band, though, have been “fantastic” and pulled a blinder. 

“These guys have been amazing. It’s been amazing.” 

I think the casting seems really inspired, to be honest. And I find Gordon Smith, lead singer with Promise To No-one, to be a particularly interesting choice as The Voice of Humanity.

It’s quite a change of genre for Gordon – more musical theatre than metal – but his heavy rock voice will be a great fit for it.

He’s playing the part played by Chris Thompson on the original album. If you can hear the song Thunder Child, then you’ll know what a good match this is. 

But I’m really exciting to see what they all do with their parts.

Calum Blane in character as the Artillery Man

Neosa himself will be The Narrator / Journalist – immortalised by Richard Burton – and Alan Fish is going to be taking the part of The Musical Thoughts of the Journalist. 

That means Alan will be singing Forever Autumn, which was sung with such aching beauty on the album by Justin Hayward, who was lead singer with The Moody Blues. 

That song makes the hairs on my neck stand up every time. 

It has to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. 

Lke a song through the trees, you came to love me. 

Like a leaf on the breeze, you blew away…

Obviously, I’ve got the personal connection to The War of The Worlds because my husband is playing in it but I’m also looking forward to being totally immersed in the musical drama of it all. So much so, that I’ve bought tickets for both nights.

I’m taking Michael, eight, as I think he’ll be blown away. He is also pretty familiar with the score now and is already developing his own passion for rock and guitars, with a bit of tuition from his dad.

The War of The Worlds has been playing on pretty much a nightly basis in our house since October – and I’m sure it’s the same for all the other War of The Worlds homes. 

All the guys have been practising intensely for months.

They will be nervous on the night. But they will also be ready.

I asked Jason what he had thought about Neosa’s idea in the first place. 

“It’s nuts. Very ambitious.” But he was also “chuffed to bits” to be asked to take part.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be taking part in it, having grown up listening to it. It’s completely different to anything I’ve ever done before – having to play completely in sync with the visuals and the sound effects. It leaves no room for error.”

These are sentiments echoed by the whole band when I went along to a recent rehearsal, with my mighty photographer pal Sandie Maciver in tow (she took all the pictures here – thanks, Sandie).

Colin Rankine said his first thought was “why did I agree to do acoustic…?!” It’s an extensive part.

But, nonetheless, he too is “really excited”. 

He said: “I love War of The Worlds. Proud to be a part of it. It’s a really big challenge but the fact that I’m such a massive fan makes it all worth it.”

He too thought it was nuts. “I thought ‘what a massive undertaking it will be’ but it will pay off when you see the show. The amount of dedication and hours. He’s done a fantastic job of it.”

Drummer Del said: “I thought it would be quite easy but when I read the score I thought, ‘crikey!’ It’s a big challenge but a good challenge. It’s taken a huge amount of practice – about two hours a night at the moment.”

Del said it had been the main focus of his practice for months. “Just because of the time changes. The speed changes as well and the pure concentration required for a score like this.

“It’s just making sure we can all play accurately together, along with the film as well.”

Keyboard player Alex Tearse said: “I’m absolutely loving it. It’s fantastic. It’s epic, just epic, and it’s everybody pulling together to make it happen. 

“It’s really community-based stuff but the effort that’s gone into doing it…!

If we can pull this off, which we will, we can do anything. The sky’s the limit. Everybody who’s coming to see it, I think they’ll be blown away.” 

Bass player Angie Murray said: “I think it’s really exciting. It’s like a bass solo from start to end! It’s a bass player’s dream, if you want to do the work. But there’s a lot of work.”

I asked Angie if he was looking forward to it.

“Flipping right! It’s one of my favourite albums ever. I was always a fan of it. I remember it from the 70s. I had my doubts about whether I’d be able to do the whole lot but it’s panned out.”

Rehearsals have been a massive commitment, given the time it takes to set up, and it’s been a two-year project, all in. 

Neosa said the idea first came to him in the car with nephew Calum Blane and a couple of pals, as they drove home after seeing a gig in Glasgow. It was January 2017 and the chat was about how nice it would be to see something ‘really different’ at home.

“For some reason War of The Worlds came up. Calum had it on his phone and we started playing it in the car, driving up to Ullapool.

“As we were driving I said to Calum, ‘do you know what would be really good? If someone was to do this show in Stornoway’. This carried on for a couple of weeks and I thought, ‘I wonder if it’s possible to do this as an amateur production?’”

He got in touch with the Jeff Wayne Foundation and found out the answer was ‘yes’. And then had to work two jobs to save up the money he needed for the licence.

The licence money was paid in September and rehearsals began the following month. 

It is completely audacious, which I love, and even though they don’t have an MFM – the Martian Fighting Machine, obviously – I think this is going to be something really special.

War of The Worlds in Stornoway?

Why on Earth not?


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