It’s been quite some time since I last went to the theatre, way back in December. But at the weekend I finally returned for the first time this year, to see an audio described performance of Back To The Future: The Musical. And it’s a fabulous show, no doubt about that! But there was a bit of confusion about the accessibility of the show, with one aspect in particular that led to me making a rare complaint afterwards. So this is a short review of my experience.
The musical is based on the classic 1985 sci-fi comedy film, and indeed is written by the same creators (Robert Zemeckis, who also directed the film, and Bob Gale), along with music and lyrics by the film’s composer Alan Silvestri with Glen Ballard. So that all gave me hope that it would be good, as I knew they were keen to do it justice and make the fans happy, and the glowing reviews seemed to back that up.
It’s not at all necessary to see the film to understand and enjoy the show. But having not watched the trilogy for a considerable number of years, I revisited the first movie online a couple of days before the stage show to refresh my memory (as it’s free as part of the trilogy on Amazon Prime Video), and it is still very enjoyable. So I’ve now bought the trilogy on Blu-ray, as a long-overdue addition to my collection, as it’s cheap with lots of extra features (including a bit about the musical). It’ll be fun to watch the movies again after so long, and see all the bonus material for the first time, and I’ll review the set at a later date.
Anyway, the story’s about a teenager called Marty McFly, whose crazy scientist friend Doc Brown has invented a time machine out of a DeLorean car. But when the scientist is killed (by terrorists in the film or plutonium poisoning in the musical), Marty takes the car and speeds off (to escape the terrorists or get medical help respectively). And in doing so he inadvertently hits the critical 88mph that triggers the time jump, and finds himself crashing into 1955.
He first comes into contact with Lorraine and George, the people who are destined to become his parents. But his actions stop them from meeting in the way that had originally led them to fall in love, thereby rewriting history in a way that threatens his own existence and that of his siblings. Worse still, his mother-to-be, oblivious to the truth, develops a crush on handsome, confident Marty instead of shy, awkward George, much to Marty’s horror. So Marty has to fix the past, by finding another way for his parents to fall in love, as well as seeking the help of the younger Doc Brown to help him travel back to the future.
There’s a lot more to the story than that of course, but that’s the crux of it… or the flux of it I should say if you’ve seen the film.
I’m happy to say that the stage show is very faithful to the premise and style of the film. There are inevitably some adjustments to the story here and there, but nothing that spoils it. And the cast are excellent. Cory English is particularly brilliant and very funny as Doc Brown, bringing out his eccentricities perfectly, and Ben Joyce is great as the handsome young Marty McFly.
The songs are also really well performed by the live band and the cast, including great covers of Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry and The Power Of Love by Huey Lewis & The News towards the end. And while the new tracks composed for the musical aren’t big earworms that have got stuck in my head, they’re still really enjoyable and have superb choreography, including It Works, Gotta Start Somewhere, Dreamers and Doc Brown’s vision of the 21st Century.
But the biggest star is the DeLorean car, unsurprisingly. I couldn’t see it super clearly with my eyesight, but it looked pretty awesome as far as I could tell, and does so in the online trailers too. And because the theatre audience can’t see inside the car, they’ve made it voice activated with speech feedback. So it has a slight vibe of KITT from Knight Rider about it (which also originated in the 1980s, so perhaps it’s a deliberate nod to it). Of course, the DeLorean isn’t a hyper-intelligent communicative piece of AI like KITT – it literally just speaks to confirm the settings and announce the speed. But the two cars would surely be closely-matched competitors if they ever came up against each other in a race (and it appears there’s a Scalextric set that allows you to do just that!).
And beyond the beautiful car, the visuals are stunning. The production is really brought to life by the clever and extensive use of huge projection screens at the front and back of the stage, circuit board style lighting that spreads out across the walls and ceiling of the auditorium, and some excellent special effects, particularly during the time travel sequences. While I couldn’t make out every detail, I was blown away by how much I could see, and can only imagine how much time and effort it took to put it all together.
There’s even a surprising and remarkably impressive set piece at the end, which being in the centre of the second row gave me the perfect close-up view for. I won’t say what happens, but if you’re sat fairly central near the front you’re in for a real treat, and even if you’re sat elsewhere it will look really cool!
In terms of accessibility, the great thing is that the audio description by Lonny Evans and Kate Taylor-Davis was first rate as usual. It wasn’t always easy to hear it over the songs, but then I was in the second row and thus very close to the orchestra pit and the stage. And I could see the general choreography anyway, so I was able to focus on that, the music and the vocals more than the description during those moments. But at other times the AD was essential for pointing out all sorts of little details I would otherwise have missed. So I found it very useful indeed.
I was initially a bit confused by how the AD was to be delivered though. The website states that LW Theatres have partnered with an app called GalaPro to provide audio description and captions, which you can use on your own mobile phone (but the theatre can also supply a headset if you prefer). And that sounded fine to me. I used a different app when I saw Wicked in the past (called Sennheiser MobileConnect), and it worked well for delivering live audio description via my own device. So I made sure I had the app and my earphones with me when I went along.
But when I arrived at the theatre, and happened to mention at the door to the stalls that I had the app for audio description, one of the female staff members explained that the audio description on the app was pre-recorded, whereas the AD delivered via the headset was live. The LW Theatres web page doesn’t mention that at all. Hence my incorrect assumption that the GalaPro app delivered live AD, because that’s what the Sennheiser app does.
So I requested the headset and used that instead, as I would much rather have live description. Pre-recorded AD is fine for things like pre-recorded TV shows and films, where it can be edited in, but it doesn’t feel right for live theatre, as by its nature the timing is always slightly different in every performance, and unexpected things can happen.
Having done a little bit of searching online since then, my limited understanding is that the GalaPro app uses voice recognition (i.e. listening to the actors) and lighting cues to sync itself up. And its intent is to allow you to attend any performance, rather than one specifically set aside for captioning or AD, because it’s not reliant on a live captioner or describer being present. So in that sense it’s a nice idea.
But what happens if something goes wrong during the show, or if something in the production is changed, or if the app doesn’t hear or see one of its cues? It strikes me that there’s no flexibility to cope with any alterations to the show if it’s pre-recorded.
So I will always try to attend a performance with live audio description where possible. It’s what I’m used to and is what makes theatre fully immersive for me. But others may not mind so much, and maybe the GalaPro app isn’t too bad. If anybody’s used it at the theatre, I’d be interested to hear about how well it’s worked.
I love it when touch tours are provided for audio described performances. They’re a hugely valuable part of the access experience that really help me to engage with and understand what’s happening to the fullest extent possible, and gain a much better appreciation for the amount of effort and skills involved. So I always go on them if given the opportunity.
They don’t always happen though – which isn’t quite the end of the world if you still have audio description, but even so the AD can only do so much with words alone. So without the tour I do have to accept that I’m missing some details that the rest of the fully sighted audience can see. Even using my monocular (my little telescope) it’s impossible to focus on much during a fast moving show. Whereas with a touch tour the AD helps to put things into context, as I can recall things I’ve seen on the tour when they’re mentioned in the narration, helping me to piece the jigsaw together.
And even when touch tours do happen, it’s not always guaranteed that you’ll be on the list to attend, because some theatres like you to contact them to register your interest. I’ve been caught out like that before, for example when a touch tour for We Will Rock You was cancelled due to lack of interest, as people hadn’t been told they needed to register for it when they booked their audio description tickets.
So, unless I’ve already been given information about a tour, I always try to contact theatres a few days before a show, just to check that a touch tour is happening and to see if I need to register for it. And that’s what I did in this case, as a tour was mentioned on the VocalEyes listing for Back To The Future.
So I emailed Adelphi Theatre’s access inbox, and got a reply from the LW Theatre Customer Relations department to say that, unfortunately, there wasn’t going to be a touch tour. Which was a shame, but at least I knew, so I didn’t pop along early for nothing. Instead I just went to the show at its usual time, and enjoyed it as thoroughly as I could with the AD, wishing I could have got close to the DeLorean and props and costumes for a proper look, but thinking no more of it.
Imagine my surprise and disappointment, therefore, when I was on Twitter at home that evening, and discovered that there had in fact been a touch tour, where people were able to look at some of the props and even meet Cory English (who plays Doc Brown)!
Suffice to say, that put a big dampener on my day. Knowing that I’d missed out on the opportunity to get close up to such an incredible show, and even meet one of the key cast members, was extremely disappointing. And without a DeLorean time machine I couldn’t exactly go back and do it!
So I emailed LW Theatres that night to complain about that, which isn’t something I’m very used to doing. As my friends will testify, I’m very laid back, to the point where I brush things off too readily sometimes when I should complain more. I just like to avoid confrontation and don’t want to come across as a moaner. But I don’t appreciate being lied to either, so this had irked me, although I was still perfectly polite in writing to them of course. The person who had informed me about the absence of the touch tour probably did it in good faith, believing it to be true, but they should have had access to the correct information.
And to their credit, I got a response from a deputy manager at LW Theatres the very next day, inviting me to attend a future AD performance, which I am assured will include a tour. So hopefully we can arrange that, as I’d be perfectly happy to see the show again.
And I hope they work to ensure that their customer relations staff are fully informed regarding accessible performances going forward. Otherwise it’s going to he hard to book and attend shows with LW Theatres if I can’t trust the information I’m given!
Back To The Future: The Musical is an amazing show that I highly recommend, and it had very helpful audio description, but it was let down by the misinformation about the touch tour, and the information about the app on the website could be much clearer, in order for people to make an informed decision about how to receive audio description. So it was a mixed experience. Here’s hoping my next visit will be a smoother ride, whenever that ends up being. I’ll keep you posted!
2 thoughts on “Back To The Future: The Musical”