Well, 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.
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.