Friday, 13 June 2014

Theatre review: Mr Burns

Some shows come with such a Marmite reputation that it feels odd to find yourself quite firmly on the fence about them. Anne Washburn's Mr Burns had a love/hate response when it debuted off-Broadway, and the reaction to its London premiere has ranged from one star to five from the critics. Its basic conceit is certainly an interesting one: Some time in the near future, disasters at a series of nuclear power plants have wiped out most of the US population. The survivors are left to try and get by in a world without power (Mr Burns is subtitled "A post electric play.") Small groups band together for safety, and as one of these welcomes, cautiously, a newcomer (Demetri Goritsas,) we see the ways they've tried to maintain a network of communication. But we also see how they try to keep their spirits up by reliving a comforting story from their earlier lives: Around the fireside they try to remember and retell an episode of The Simpsons.

The episode is "Cape Feare" (the one with Sideshow Bob and the rakes) and this campfire version is only the first we hear: The play has three acts, with two intervals, and each sees a new version of the story - spoilers from the next paragraph on.

The version remembered in the first act is pretty close to the original but of course some details are wrong; the second act takes place seven years later when the group have turned into a troupe of travelling actors, one of many performing Simpsons episodes (we also hear of companies bringing The West Wing to life for drama fans, and even the odd Shakespeare troupe.) With the semblance of a script reconstructed, new accurate quotes will make the experience even better for the audience, so this kind of geeky TV trivia has become a valuable commodity.

Culture often looks in on itself, and Mr Burns has a very particular take on the way pop-culture becomes not just part of our shared identity in the way that the oral tradition once was, but the way its familiarity brings us comfort. The troupe in the second act are as proud of their ability to reconstruct the ad breaks as they are of the episodes themselves. But there's a stark reminder that it's still a fireside distraction at heart, and that the world outside is a dangerous one.

There's a lot of musical theatre regulars (Adrian der Gregorian, Jenna Russell, Michael Schaeffer) in the cast, and the reason becomes apparent in the final act, 75 years later, when the episode has mutated into something else again: A kind of opera/creation myth for the post-electric world. The significance of a play called Mr Burns focusing on an episode that doesn't feature the title character becomes apparent here as, their world having been shaped by a nuclear disaster, it's the fictional nuclear power plant owner who's replaced Sideshow Bob as the bogeyman, and "Cape Feare" has become a much darker story.

Mr Burns certainly seems to elicit responses of either rapturous adoration or disgusted cries of dull pretentiousness. It's certainly not a show for anyone not up on their pop culture, not just "Cape Feare" but, The Simpsons being a series that itself thrives on references, everything that the episode itself plays on: Gilbert and Sullivan, both versions of Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter; as well as a selection of nineties and noughties pop hits thrown in for good measure. I didn't have any trouble with these, and the scope and ambition is exhilarating, but I can't help feeling Washburn's writing doesn't live up to her own big ideas.

Yes, the baddie from In The Flesh is playing Marge Simpson. Try not to boo her.

The trouble is any time we move away from the Simpsons reconstruction to something in the outside world, the dialogue is just not that interesting. And despite spending the first two acts with the same set of characters, they feel completely underdeveloped. Russell's Colleen has been severely traumatised in the first act but seems better in the second, and Annabel Scholey's Maria argues with Wunmi Mosaku's Quincy over how purely escapist their work should be, but that's about as far is it goes.

And the play features one of the classic irritants of Hollywood disaster movies, in making no acknowledgement of the outside world (the US has land borders to both North and South; has nobody attempted to find out if the nuclear disasters extended to Canada and Mexico, let alone tried to escape there?) And the first two acts' insistence on the reemergence of an oral tradition and stories changing by being mis-remembered, suggests that's how we're supposed to view the final act; but Washburn seems to forget the existence of pen and paper, and the physical script that the company were meticulously reconstructing in the middle section. For the episode, commercial breaks and snippets of Britney Spears' "Toxic" to have all merged by the end we'd have to be looking at a post-literate society as well as a post-electric one.

What I can't fault is Robert Icke's production, whose cast show pure conviction. The acts pass quickly, although that may be because so much of the overall show is made up of interval, to enable huge set changes. At least Tom Scutt's designs are worth the wait, and he particularly does justice to the genius of Matt Groening's character designs in the final act, with the simple headgear instantly evoking how iconic the characters' silhouettes are.

Based simply on my own response I'd recommend seeing Mr Burns, if only for the unique experience; it didn't leave me satisfied, and I wished Washburn's writing had come close to matching her own ambition or the flair of the production around it, but there's moments of pure genius that made me glad I saw it. But Andy hated it by the end, and he's far from the only person to see no merit in the show whatsoever; while others can't sing its praises highly enough. So I'd say risk it if only to see what side of the fence you come down on, or indeed join me sitting on it; but don't blame me if you end up sympathising with Sideshow Bob and wanting to strike the whole lot of them down.

Mr Burns by Anne Washburn is booking until the 26th of July at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including two intervals.

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