It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Take the back catalogue of one of the most successful and iconic pop groups of all time, get national semi-treasure Jennifer Saunders to write the script, and add Mamma Mia! producer Judy Craymer for good measure. A recipe for success, surely? It may yet prove to be a commercial hit but to describe Viva Forever!'s critical reception as 'a mauling' might be understating it. Still, other shows have withstood bad reviews and been awarded "critic-proof" status in the past, so all is not lost for the latest jukebox show on the block.
Quick refresher course: the Spice Girls were fantastic. Not so much a pop group as a force of nature, they came, took over the world with a collection of genuinely terrific singles, and fizzled out in a relatively short space of time. That's not to say they've been entirely dormant since, of course - anyone who managed to rouse themselves in between endless Olympic appearances by Emeli Sandé over the summer will have seen their joyous, barnstorming Closing Ceremony performance atop colourful London cabs, and if you're anything like me, you'll have revisited said moment on YouTube at least once in the past 24 hours. Truly, the word 'iconic' hardly does the Spice Girls justice.
It comes as a disappointment, then, to discover that the members of the girl group in this show - a four-piece called Eternity - barely have a tiny fraction of that group's chemistry or personality between them. You'll struggle to remember their names, so let's call them the main one (Viva, played by Hannah John-Kamen), the mouthy and profoundly annoying one, and two who don't have any defining characteristics at all beyond one being gay. (This one also wears a hat, which could have been given to the other one to give her something to work with, but alas no.)
As we join them, Eternity are about to progress to the live shows of an TV talent show called Starmaker, and the very slight and slightly tedious plot follows them through the process as Viva is forced to make a difficult choice about whether to become a solo act (thereby ditching the others) or not. Of course she does, and things get a bit tricky between them, but one can of course be comforted by the mantra that friendship never ends. Along the way, we meet Viva's adopted mother, Lauren (Sally Ann Triplett), as well as some tiresome talent show judge archetypes - among others, we have a Sharon Osbourne figure (played gamely by Sally Dexter, lumbered with all the songs nobody wants to hear) and a Simon Cowell (Bill Ward, fine but pointless), and while there are a couple of amusing jabs at the X Factor (they provide some of the only vaguely funny moments in Saunders' weak script), it just seems odd to have a key element of the show so closely linked to a cultural reference point in terminal and ever-quickening decline.
Songwise, they're all here, more or less, with the notable exception of latter-day Number One single 'Holler' and tremendous album track 'Never Give Up On The Good Times' - quite seriously, that song's omission is bordering on a criminal act, especially considering the clunkers that did make the cut (hello, 'Tell Me Why' and 'Time Goes By'). In terms of how the songs are presented, there are hits and misses: 'Too Much' (here, it's about pubic hair) and 'Say You'll Be There' (a dull argument between the girls) fall flat, but some are effective - a tender, bilingual rendition of the title song is unexpectedly touching and Act One closes on the most impressive number, a lovely three-way mash-up of 'Goodbye', 'Mama' and little-remembered flop reunion single 'Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)'.
The two most popular songs with the audience, however, are easily 'Stop' and '2 Become 1'. The former had the raucous group of tipsy ladies near me copying the choreography in their seats (or attempting to - it took some restraint to resist correcting their shortcomings), and the latter, staged as a pre-coital warm-up for Viva's mother and her male friend, had much of the audience erupting in laughter and resulted in a spontaneous singalong. (While I didn't partake, I found this quite sweet and may also have been doing some internal harmonies.) On the flipside, many of the more obscure tracks - and there are quite a few - left the aforementioned raucous ladies in an apparent state of dismayed confusion.