Review – Mr Burns, Almeida Theatre

Thursday 12 June 2014

Mr_Burns_image_260x356_MAINWell, you can’t win them all, although it looked at one stage as if the Almedia just might.

Churning out possibly the best 3 theatrical productions of the last 12 months: Chimerica, American Psycho and King Charles III the Almeida has earned an almost unlimited number of theatrical “Get out of jail free” cards. This latest offering, Mr Burns, creates a host of reasons why it may be time to return them all to the pack.

Mild irritation begins with in its billing as “a post-electric play by Anne Washburn” which should have served as a warning to how potentially annoying this play might prove. An unspecified apocalypse in the near future has led to nuclear power stations leaking (It probably helps to know that Mr Burns is the evil owner of the nuclear power plant in The Simpsons.) and leaving those who survive without electricity. The whole of Act 1 is performed in a gloom so crepuscular you can barely see the actors’ faces. Perhaps the cast wished to remain anonymous? Who would blame them?

It would be unfair to say the acting is bad given the lines these poor actors are forced to deliver but at least you could hear them clearly (presumably our auditory senses are enhanced by being unable to see anything) and they don’t bump into the furniture (a miracle in the circumstances).

Much of Act 1 sees (well, barely sees in this case) a group of deeply annoying Americans sitting round a real fire reliving the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons (which parodies the film Cape Fear and its remake) in forensic detail. Well, with no TV they have to entertain themselves somehow. Let us hope they are entertaining each other as they’re sure as hell not entertaining us.

The dialogue is presumably meant to sound natural and spontaneous as they stumble around trying to remember the minutiae of each shot and line from the show. Instead it sounds stilted and awkward. To say this is tedious is to understate the case, it’s not just irritating it’s slightly embarrassing. If you’ve never seen an episode of The Simpsons you may find yourself slightly lost and put off ever seeing one. If you’re a fan it may take a long time to get over this and want to watch it again. When they occasionally stop talking about the cartoon they talk about other things which we also don’t get to see either. But in this gloom perhaps it had to be all tell and no show. A few in the audience laughed occasionally. At what? It could only be out of embarrassment.

Ms Washburn ups the dramatic tension by having each character read out a long list of names of friends and relatives they are hoping to find alive. Well, everything is relative; at least it provided relief from hearing more about the TV show.

Is it suggesting that pop culture is like a cockroach and will survive nuclear disaster through storytelling? It was impossible to care. The only thing Phil liked was the poster with its Bart Simpson doodle design suggesting an electric filament. Clever. Oh and a mention of actress Juliette Lewis gave Phil his only opportunity to whip out a weak smile (it was Fool For Love starring Lewis that led The Whingers to start whingeing in the first place).

Thankfully Ms Washburn proves herself a thoughtful writer in other ways. Generously providing 2 intervals there are 2 opportunities to escape. We opted for the first one after 45 minutes of this humourless drear. Jerry, who accompanied Phil considered jumping ship even before the end of Act 1. We were still in the bar enjoying ourselves when Act 2 emptied out and we had the satisfaction of witnessing other audience members making their escapes. An indiscreet Almeida employee revealed that about 40 left before the end a few nights ago (Almeida capacity a mere 325).

And if you think the rating is unfair given it’s based on Act 1 alone, however brilliant Acts 2 and 3 may be they could never possibly compensate for what we’re subjected to in Act 1. It would be cruel to reveal any of the creatives involved apart from the writer who must shoulder responsibility.

Nostalgic for Fram, Phil was desperate to dig out the Fram scale for this but sadly couldn’t find it.

Mr Burns’ trademark expression of “Excellent” could not be less appropriate here.

For some inexplicable reason Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times about the US production, got in a right old giddy spin about it, declaring it “downright brilliant”. Worth checking out the comments underneath his review.



14 Responses to “Review – Mr Burns, Almeida Theatre”

  1. Oh dear indeed. Mostly I like the Almeida but I will pass on this one. Hope you recover soon Phil.

  2. Ged Ladd Says:

    Indeed, this one is a lemon. Daisy and I are made of sterner stuff than the Whingers, though, it seems. We realised that it had to change and, heck, thought it might get better. So we stayed on for Part Two.

    It did change, in some ways slightly for the better, but in other ways yet more irritating. We laughed a couple of times, but when the only thing that entertains you in a play is a reprise of a funny sketch from someone else’s show (in this instance, the pay-off scene from the “Mr Thompson” episode of the Simpsons – no neither of us had ever seen the Simpsons either), there is something seriously wrong with the play.

    By the end of Part Two, I had worked out more or less where this dreadful play must be going, the textbook-style foreshadowing adding to the sophomoric nature of the piece. Daisy needed no persuading to duck out of Part Three.

    We struggled to work out how this play got chosen for the Almeida and I guessed (correctly) that it had been raved about somewhere – The New York Times reviewer should hang his head in shame.

    The Huffington Post got it right and *spoiler alert if you click the link* I got many brownie points for working out where Part Three was going to go – thank goodness we didn’t stay for that Part.

    Regarding the link I have provided above, I also clicked the second link – Mr Burns Explains The Fiscal Cliff – a short cartoon which Daisy and I found very funny indeed. Spend a minute or two looking at that cartoon – do not waste your time and money on this turkey of a play.

  3. Gil Says:

    I saw this one in the states and roughly felt as you did–except for that I found moments of the first act “interesting” and felt it roughly went downhill from there. Brantley didn’t like it because of the production differences; he liked it because what the fuck, Brantley.

  4. Billy Says:

    Gil may have a point, insofar as there are no salaried arts critics, especially not theatre critics, of any value across the pond nowadays. The New York Times and the putrid dead magazine which Conde Nast persists in calling the New Yorker are the most foul reeking pustules, mainly because of their hacks’ prominence and/or fat salaries, but they are by no means exceptions. Brantley is a gormless Howdy Doody puppet and his fellow critic who crassly usurps the name of Isherwood was hired on the basis of a sole previous publication credit, a sweaty idolatrous “biography” of the gay porn “power bottom” actor Joey Stefano – a book which managed to be illiterate and dull! All the more reason why the Whingers are national treasures and should not deprive addicted readers for stretches of six weeks from empathetic reading experiences.

  5. bwayabridged Says:

    @Billy Oh I don’t know if that’s all entirely true. I for one don’t hate Adam Feldman at all.

  6. Alan Says:

    Isn’t it a bit wrong to completely deride a play you only saw a third of?

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Possibly, but only ‘a bit wrong’ and I did mention that towards the end.
      And I’m hardly alone. Read Mark Shenton (1 star), Henry Hitchings, Kate Bassett, Paul Taylor and heck, even Libby Purves who all gave it 2.
      Tim Walker christened it “3 hours of hell”. I’m lucky I could escape…

  7. Alan Says:

    Fair enough ; ) I’m just conflicted whether to go and see it because as well as those 1 stars there are also 5 stars from these guys.

    Is this just a classic love it or hate it kind of a show?

    • Ged Ladd Says:

      If you are sufficiently intrigued and not put off by our words together with the majority of the reviews, then you should go, Alan. But if you do go, please stick around for all three parts and do please pop back here afterwards to let us know genuinely what you thought.

  8. Alan Says:

    Challenge accepted Ged!
    I had a mosey on down to Angel, got a cheap seat and a not so cheap but well made Gin and tonic. (Good amount of lime)
    I thought the first act was slow, it almost felt like the preparatory reading for the second two acts. But once the prep was done it felt like a remarkable change of pace.
    The second two acts were pretty good fun. Can you shoot bazooka holes through the end of the world scenario? yes you’re damn right you can.
    Do I believe that the Simpsons would be turned into a play in a post nuclear melt down America? No, but that doesn’t really matter, it is balls to the wall good fun in the second two instalments and asks some interesting questions about theatre, society and culture.
    It’s not often you get to see an opera featuring Britney Spears song mash ups. My advice would be to slip in for the second two acts and read the show blurb before you go so you’re fully up to speed.

    • Ged Ladd Says:

      Chapeau to you, Alan. A brave decision on your part to take up the challenge and I’m genuinely glad it worked out well for you. Just don’t get me started again on those “bazooka holes through” the credibility of the conceit of the play…

      …as for the song “mash ups”, one man’s mash up is another woman’s (Daisy’s in this instance) “all over the place, what a mess”…

      …although she did laugh at the slapstick business with the plastic water-spray thingie…

      …which survived the nuclear winter, despite not a single guitar, ukulele or harmonica surviving it…

      …you HAVE got me started!

      Seriously, good on you for buying a ticket anyway and reporting back. Respect.

  9. Sarah Says:

    The gauntlet was thrown down and who am I to back away from a challenge? I ‘suffered’, yes I said suffered all three acts. That is 3 hours of my life I will never get back! After one glass of wine and the dimly lit theatre, I felt very heavy eyed but I got through the unstructured and disjointed ‘conversations’ of act 1.

    After a strong coffee at the interval, I returned for another round of pop culture hell. I thought Toxic and Party Rockers were bad songs but to be subjected to them by unco-ordinated and tone deaf performers was hysterical (and excruciatingly painful to watch). When I noticed I was the only audience member laughing, I realised the whole essence of the act was lost on me. Also, I know it was set in post-apocalyptic America but will someone please tell me why they all had to dress like rejects from a Bruce Springsteen video!?

    Anyway, onwards and unfortunately downwards. Act 3 and the ‘opera’ started to an audience of 23 (yes, I sat there and counted, along with the minutes until the torture was over!). I think they should use the word ‘opera’ very loosely, it was the same toneless dirge all the way through! Even better, I heard an irritating noise (other than that on the stage) and noticed my guest had fallen asleep and was snoring! OMG I had to suffer the play alone (no comrade to share the embarrassment and boredom with). At one point, I realised I had been sitting for approx 10 mins with my jaw dropped in utter disbelief. I looked around the remaining audience and wanted to scream, “does everyone else feel this is a crock of …?!”

    I know the Almedia is capable of putting on some fantastic productions but with Mr Burns, I can’t tell if the Almedia felt like experimenting or just had some time slots to fill!

    The trauma of watching this show will stay with me for a long time. I can recall most of the scenes – re-enacting the worst parts – I get a laugh every time!! Thank you, Anne Washburn, for making me so popular at parties.

  10. Divisive, sure. But I stayed for all three acts, and consider it to be one of the most amazing pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.

    I stood and applauded at the end. Me and about a dozen other people in the (full) audience. One man standing ovation.

    I’m happy with that.

  11. Thank you, Mr. Beckley. I agree completely. I simply don’t know what play the others were seeing.

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