Thriller is now an established presence on the West End theatre scene, since arriving at the Lyric Theatre in 2007. The show never once utters the ‘M’ word in its publicity – it’s not a musical and doesn’t claim to be.
Instead, it’s essentially a greatest hits album on stage; with the songs performed by a number of ‘Jackos’, of different genders, ages and races (it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white I suppose). The production starts with the early sounds of Jackson 5 before giving us the best of his solo material, including the Thriller and Bad albums.
So why are we reviewing the show eight years after it opened? The show has recently been significantly reworked, including four new songs and a revamped opening medley. Whilst I can’t compare and contrast it with the old version, it seemed a perfect chance to see whether Thriller lives up to its considerable hype, even six years after Jackson’s death.
It goes without saying that the score was almost perfection; Jackson has a considerable and dazzling back catalogue to choose from. There was a mix of lively numbers and slower, sadder ballads, which generally worked well. However, there was a period towards the end of the first half where the energy sapped a bit and the music seemed to lack variation. The extra songs were all worthy of inclusion (especially Rockin’ Robin) but it did make the show very long – a bit of judicious editing might be in order as the run progresses.
The second half was distinctly better, with a mesmerising final twenty minutes, including the epic line up of Billie Jean, Thriller, Bad and Smooth Criminal. It was a perfect crescendo that had the audience in raptures towards the end, with some brilliantly inventive staging – the freaky monsters coming through the audience for Thriller and nods to the famous choreography of Billie Jean. They also resisted the urge to go too over the top with Earth Song; so need for a Jarvis Cocker style intervention!
The choreography is by far the strongest aspect of Thriller; it is inventive, exhilarating and almost exhausting to watch. It incorporates the traditional Jackson moves (including the moonwalks) whilst still providing a fresh, fun and radical approach. There are some seriously complex and gravity defying moves, performed by an extremely strong ensemble. Particular highlights were the risqué but interesting moves of Dirty Diana and the smart individual choreography of Beat It, which gave the dancers a chance to show their individual talents.
There are a number of lead vocalists, who all take on the Jackson role throughout the night. Dajilow embodied the spirit of Jackson best of all and was able to perfectly replicate Jackson’s mannerisms, including the famous moonwalk, incredibly well. Alex Buchanan also impressed during the slower and more soulful numbers, as well as delivering an impressive and energetic version of Beat It. Young Eshan Gopal was also a crowd-pleaser, owning the stage during his medley of Jackson 5 classics.
The staging was clever and vibrant, supported by some excellent lighting and pyrotechnics. A screen at the back of the stage is used for some clever effects and works neatly in tandem with the choreography. The brilliant house band mixed rock, soul and pop and provided emphatic musical support. It was fantastic to see them in vision during some of the show’s epic guitar solos, a device which could perhaps have been used more frequently to up the tempo.
Although the show was technically excellent, I do have some reservations. Whilst it is undoubtedly a fun filled evening, its theatrical value is limited, with no effort to create any sort of story or plot. This lack of emotional investment means that Thriller can sometimes seem somewhat mechanical, especially due to the dreaded audience clap-a-long that results from most of the songs.
There’s nothing to break up the music or encourage any kind of thought, meaning it sometimes feels a bit like watching something unchallenging on TV. You’re enjoying what you’re watching and would happily see more of it but you know that your brain is going to remain thoroughly untested.
If you’re looking for something to make you think, laugh or cry then Thriller may not be the one for you. However, if you’re a Jacko fan or are looking to dance away a Friday night there’s nowhere better to go in the West End.