The Machine Stops – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Writer: EM Forster

Adaptor: Neil Duffield

Director: Juliet Foster

Reviewer:  Nicole Evans

Living in virtual isolation in her hexagonal chamber, deep in a manufactured dystopian retreat far below the, supposedly now inhabitable, earth’s surface, Vashti prepares to present her lecture on matters of the world as it was once experienced when humans lived above ground. Connected to her students, and her friends and family, only via computer screens and having her every whim attended to by the technology that engulfs her, she worships The Machine she calls home like a god.

Kuno, her eldest son, living far from her in an identical dwelling, wants more. Having been denied the chance to procreate, he discovers a way out of the depths and longs to escape, much to his mother’s horror. Could there really be life beyond the world as Vashti knows it? And can anybody make their escape before The Machine Stops them?

A distorted electronic soundtrack echoes around the auditorium as we take our seats and continues throughout. Although unobtrusive for the most part, the subtle stereo effects are somewhat lost on those of us towards the edge of the rows and the volume levels are such that it is a fight to clearly hear the dialogue at times.

A metal-framed, geometrically-shaped, set with a single chair in the centre fills the stage and doubles as both setting and apparatus for the duration. Maria Gray and Adam Slynn intertwine themselves around the wire-adorned metal bars and each other, connecting wires to The Machine, Vashti and each other in order to keep everything connected, becoming the life of technology. The pair’s movements almost never cease and the fluidity of their adept gymnastics, combined with the soothing tones of their voices, creates an oddly unnerving sense of ease throughout. Sat in the centre chair, where she remains for the majority of the time, is Vashti, played by Ricky Butt. Butt charmingly portrays Vashti’s vulnerability and effortlessly convinces us of her reliance on The Machine while completely absorbing herself into her rôle; regularly interacting with Gray and Slynn while simultaneously seeming to be ignorant of their presence. The weak link of the four is unfortunately Rohan Nedd, who doesn’t appear to slip into the role of Kuno quite as fluently as he should have – needing to be more confident in the delivery of such a strong aspect of the plot and failing to persuade us of his desperation for freedom. His monologue of his visit above ground is his saving grace in which glimpses of his potential do come through.

One may question whether a story written in 1909 would still have the same impact on a 2017 audience, although in this case it could be argued that the piece has more relevance in today’s society than even EM Forster could have imagined. With our ever increasing reliance on technology and the scientific advancements that surround us in the present day, Forster’s depiction of the world’s complex relationship with machines is more poignant than ever.

A beautifully executed and thoughtful piece that will make you question every relationship, both human and artificial, within your own realms. With the exception of a few duff lines and a needlessly disjointed climactic scene towards the end that could have been more effective had it been simplified, The Machine Stops is a thoroughly absorbing piece of theatre. Catch it while you can.

Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Ben Bentley

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