BREVIEW: The War of the Worlds @ Old Joint Stock Theatre 25-31.10.2017

Words by Lucy Mounfield

Tin Robot Theatre specialise in bold plays adapted from well-known texts, with previous productions at the Old Joint Stock – Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart – all being well received. But can their new take on H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction The War of the Worlds live up to this burgeoning reputation?

First published in 1897, The War of the Worlds has since entered the popular consciousness, spawning dozens of derivative works including radio plays, films and theatre productions. The iconic 1978 concept album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, proved to be a phenomenal success – selling three million copies in the UK alone and spawning a long-running stage musical.

Tin Robot Theatre’s production hearkens back to an earlier time. Whilst researching for the play, director Adam Carver listened to the infamous 1938 radio play directed and narrated by Orson Welles, broadcast as a Halloween Special on CBS in America – infamous because many of those listening to the opening ‘warning’ thought they were being informed of a real alien invasion. It is this sense of realism, as opposed to the high camp of the 1978 concept album, that characterises the Tin Robot Theatre production.

As we enter the studio space, configured as a theatre-in-the-round, the scene is already set. A desk is in the centre; on the desk lies a contraption upon which the bespectacled Pearson (Touwa Craig-Dunn) is working. Upon the table are two silver arched desk lamps – the arms of which evoke the legs of the alien tripods, a chilling reminder of the aggressors that we never actually see. We take our seats and don our wireless headphones, tuning in to a crackling radio broadcast about a red sky over England. The inclusion of factual information alongside fictitious broadcasts like this provides verisimilitude; Tin Robot Theatre are interested in the ‘totality’ of the play, and touches like this serve to immerse the audience, creating the feeling that we really are listening in on the end of the world via radio.

Throughout the production the year or date of the atrocities is never mentioned – the props are neutral and this adds to the sense of universality surrounding the themes of conflict. Indeed, aliens are not referred to as the culprits of the devastation until Pearson hears from the first voice (Grace Hussey-Burd) and the artillery man (Joel Heritage). Up until this point I half expected them to say the heat-burns were the result of a terrorist attack. These theatrical tropes enable us to reflect on our own society and how invariably desensitised we have become to war; in this age of fake news and social media, the ‘truth’ is a suspect notion and something that Carver channels by bombarding our senses with sounds, voices and news slogans that are on a constant repeat.

Tin Robot Theatre’s The War of the Worlds is essentially a radio play, which is both its strength and its weakness. Of the cast we only ever see Pearson, as the rest are heard only through the headphones, and whilst Craig-Dunn’s performance was naturalistic the burden of conveying the emotional impact of the scenes narrated by the other characters falls on his shoulders. The remote cast clearly enunciates their lines, sometimes too much so, but the pace of Pearson’s performance is also sometimes bogged down by repetition of movements and dialog.

The script draws heavily from Wells’ writing. Often, descriptive passages were lifted wholesale and tweaked slightly so that they might work more plausibly as dialog. In places this works to great effect, but at times it also falls flat. In the 1897 text, Wells’ opening lines crackle with the menace of a hostile universe; here they are diluted and deadened, lacking their original impact – ending up as the worst of both worlds, not quite narration and not quite dialog.

These things are not entirely negative however. The disjoint between Craig-Dunn and the rest of the cast serves to produce a sense of unreality; you are never sure whether these voices are real, whether they are in his head, or whether the aliens even exist at all. The doorway on which Pearson pins his notes, and through which he exits at the end, is a constant reminder of the uncertainty of the outside world.

One of the highlights of the play is the curate’s (Jack Robertson) hysterical breakdown. Here, sound was used effectively to convey a sense of panic as we hear screaming voices, gun fire, machinery, and radio distortion, reaching an unbearable crescendo. To see Pearson wreathing and wrenching on the floor is just as unbearable and highlights the horror of what we are hearing. This is where the play comes alive – Craig-Dunn’s performance is compelling as he reacts with horror to the audio sound emitted from his radio.

Overall, Carver and company deliver an atmospheric and bold take on The War of the Worlds, immersing the audience in a claustrophobic apocalypse and evoking the best of 20th century Sci Fi. And despite a somewhat jarring end with the opening song from Jeff Wayne’s rock opera, which reduces a thought provoking finale to a postmodern self-reference, the tone of Tin Robot Theatre’s The War of the Worlds is serious, bleak and a far cry from the 1978 concept album.

Tin Robot Theatre‘s production of The War of the Worlds runs at the Old Joint Stock until Tuesday 31st October. For direct event info, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.

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