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Will this déjà vu never end?

A trio of theatrical offerings reviewed.

Viva Forever!; The Effect; People
Piccadilly Theatre; The Cottesloe; Lyttleton Theatre

Having been among the millions who stood and sang at Mamma Mia!, I had hopes for the Spice Girls musical, Viva Forever! It is intended to do for Scary, Sporty, Posh, Baby and Ginger what Mamma Mia! did for Abba: that is to use their hits not to tell their story but a new one. The key to these ventures would appear to be in the name of the genre to which they belong. In a “song-book” musical: the better the songs the better the musical. Senator, the Spice Girls are no Abba. The programme boasts of the group’s sales, concluding they “have very little to prove” – but it protests too much.

Whereas with Mamma Mia! the fun was working out how Abba’s weirdly wide range of song titles were going to be shoe-horned into the plot, in Viva Forever! the much more taxing game is Name That Tune. The only time a song sat snugly in that sincere-yet-self-parodic way that the Abba musical managed, was when two middle-aged members of the company got it on to “2 Become 1”. The musical shortcomings will, admittedly, not be a problem for the girls’ old fans, who connect the hits to their youth in the late-Nineties and one of those periods in which Britain worked itself up into a frenzy of misplaced self-confidence. What will be a problem for one and all is the book.

It is, I regret to say, by Jennifer Saunders, who does not work nearly hard enough to earn her title’s exclamation mark. Her story, about an adopted young woman called, yes, Viva, who makes it to the final of Star Maker (ie The X Factor) but only by ditching the other members of her group, has the makings of something. There is tussle for maternity rights over Viva between her sweet adoptive mum Lauren (the agreeable Sally Ann Triplett) and her evil Saturday night mentor, Simone, played as cross between Cruella De Vil and Sharon Osbourne by Sally Dexter. But the story’s resolution has gone missing. In a lost scene, Viva, surely, would discover Simone was her real mother.

There is some game singing; Peter McKintosh’s sets have a freshness about them; and Saunders comes up with the odd good joke, such as the moment when Viva’s mother says that despite her shot at fame she should still complete her Ucas form and Viva replies, “That’s right: prepare me for failure.” But Viva Forever! has nothing to say and very little to sing about. I stayed in my chair.

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, in contrast, has so much it wants to say that it is quite high on it. Just as her triumphant big-stage hit Enron turned the tale of a failed energy company into something worth singing about, this studiopiece about neuroscience verges at times on modern dance, or possibly gymnastics, and at one point breaks out into a tap dance. (It is a coproduction with Headlong, a company with form for physical theatre.)

The setting is a clinic where two guinea-pig patients are being observed by two doctors on either side of a neuroscience argument. The audience sits soft all around. Connie and Tristan (played by Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill) are given ever increasing doses of an anti-depressant drug, with the result they get happier and happier and randier and randier, and more paranoid too. But hang on! Connie or Tristan, or neither or both, may be on a placebo.

As a genre, I suppose this is a “who’s-on-it” and although it is an intriguing premise, so chicken-and-egg is the nature of the argument about whether our moods create our biochemistry or our biochemistry our moods that, frankly, your guess is as good as mine or that of the doctors.

As Tristan says, there is a rush of something chemical if you are on a bus with a bomb on it but it doesn’t mean Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock aren’t really in love. More interesting, really, are the clinicians’ takes on depression. The man argues it is an illness to be cured, the woman that it provides an insight into the lousiness of the human condition (a similar case was put more one-sidedly in Mark Haddon’s Polar Bears). A poshed-up Piper is terrific as the disturbed, angry Connie and O’Neill, who tap-dances, really makes you believe his irritating Tristan is besotted by her – even before their masturbation scene. Trial is a good word to use for the experiment they are in. After some deliberation, I found the doctors guilty.

It is easier to pass judgement on Alan Bennett’s People, in which he uses his easy rapport with the middle classes to make them feel guilty for touring National Trust properties. Bennett here works on the Richard Littlejohn principle of first distorting the truth and then exaggerating what he has distorted.

So, the National Trust, which does restore servants’ kitchens, is accused of mocking up vials of urine of the famous who once slept in four-poster beds. Agreeing with Sartre that hell is other people, Bennett proposes that it would be better for an old pile to collapse round an impoverished ageing aristocrat (Frances de la Tour channelling Hermione Gingold) than to let the public in.

He explicitly suggests that using her old house for the set of a soft-porn movie (this dated scene is particularly unfunny) is less abusive than letting the National Trust have its wicked with it. As with much late Bennett, he throws in some gay exhibitionism, as if to dare us to be shocked. There are the perennial Bennett place-name and brand-name jokes. But, as a national treasure himself, he should at this stage be working on burnishing his reputation, not giving into an old man’s spite.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer of the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit