DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Machine Stops – Theatre Royal Studio, York

Writer: Neil Duffield (after E.M. Forster)

Director: Juliet Forster

Designer: Rhys Jarman

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

E.M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops, written in 1909, is very different in tone and subject-matter from the novels on which his reputation rests. A futuristic fiction about the danger of the dominance of technology, it appears particularly prophetic in these days of Facebook “friends” and communication by Skype. Pilot Theatre’s production, in association with York Theatre Royal, is outstandingly successful in finding a medium through which to communicate Forster’s vision. Hugely effective dramatically, it is also remarkably true to the original.

In The Machine Stops Mankind has been forced to desert the surface of the Earth and civilisation has moved downstairs into an underworld of isolated lives. People live in separate cells where, thanks to the all-powerful Machine, all their wishes are granted. Food is supplied, beds appear when requested, communication with vast numbers of “friends” is possible by televisual devices, academics share their second-hand ideas with the world by means of regular lectures – and the Mending Apparatus soon sorts out anything that goes wrong. Travel still occurs by airship, but is now a rarity as civilised people don’t see the point: there are no ideas to be got in the air, as Vashti explains.

Vashti is contented with life in her room without a view, ruled, yet waited on, by The Machine, so physically inert that she can walk only with difficulty. Kuno, her son, living on the opposite side of the world – parental responsibility, like family life, has been abolished – is a rebel. He wishes to see the surface of the earth, he wants to communicate face to face with his mother. Forster’s dramatic ending is not planned as a surprise: his title tells us where the story is headed. What is compelling about the story is the vividly detailed imagining of life under technology and Vashti and Kuno’s final assertion of human values.

Pilot Theatre’s version is based on an inspired idea: creating the Machine in human form. Rhys Jarman’s vaguely menacing and supremely practical set sets Vashti’s chair against a honeycomb of a climbing frame over and around which Maria Gray and Gareth Aled athletically swing and scramble, carrying out the tasks of The Machine and supplying cleverly interlocking lines of narration. Their increasingly distorted duet as The Machine ceases to function properly is brilliantly done.

In an assured performance, Caroline Gruber makes sense of Vashti, complacently full of all the conventional certainties, prickly in her protection of her privacy. Karl Queensborough as Kuno combines a convincing presentation of the urgent idealist with a vivid physical performance: his ascent to the surface is as daring as it is imaginative.

Neil Duffield’s script is intelligent, economical and stylishly consistent with Forster’s original; composers John Foxx and Benge produce a soundscape of ambient sound that is simultaneously soothing and terrifyingly convincing; and Juliet Forster’s confident direction links together a highly impressive re-creation of her namesake’s remarkable short story.

Runs until 4 June 2016 | Image: Ben Bentley

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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