The War of the Worlds – New Diorama Theatre, London

Writer: Isley Lynn

Directors: Julian Spooner & Hamish MacDougall

Reviewer: Gus Mitchell

The War of the Worlds, Rhum & Clay’s adaptation-cum-deconstruction of Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio broadcast of the famous sci-fi novel, begins with a bare, 40s-noir-esque smoky stage and an impressively detailed old-fashioned radio microphone extending leftwards to stage centre. The microphone has emblazoned on it the words ‘CBS’ – the station on Welles aired over hundred radio dramas in the late 30s, and on which, on Halloween 1938, his Mercury Theatre on the Air’s ‘War of the Worlds broadcast’ (presented in the form of real news bulletins) was beamed into the homes of millions of – supposedly – hoodwinked and terrified Americans. The mythology surrounding the mass panic that supposedly followed and what this can say to us about contemporary ideas on truth are all tackled subjects in the show’s zippy 85 minutes.

The initial stage image is a captivatingly simple one: a waiting microphone and, behind it, an old-timey giant wooden radio set. The lights dimming is simultaneous with the real 1938 announcer introducing Welles, as director-star of the show, and the film noir retro-ness of silhouettes and smoke continues as the four members of the company appear, standing outlined behind the theatre’s versatile ‘steel cage’ backdrop. Pipes emerge. They collectively become Welles, segueing into a wonderful and funny reconstruction of the first few – and still innovative – moments of the original broadcast: the intercutting of abrupt, orchestrated breaks between boring musical interludes and sudden, shocking Martian attacks; the fake interview with Princeton astronomers; the panicked reporter getting vaporised on air and Welles’ daring decision to hold a seemingly infinite radio silence of ‘dead air’ to build tension, holding the audience in the palm of his hand – just like Welles, it’s an opening which is bold, sly and seductive.

It is always both a good idea and at the same time a little too easy to hitch onto a fascinating story or personality for a theatre piece. Yet the company, collectively devising the piece alongside scripting from Isley Lynn, have managed to tell a new story of their own and combine it with the fascinating mythology. A superb cast works together with ease to shift us between the comically earnest 30s recreation to a contemporary New Jersey. ‘YouTube influencer’ Meena decides to try make her name with a ‘serial-style’ podcast and investigate the mystery surrounding the mother of her neighbour, Jonathan, whose family apparently abandoned her the night of the ’38 broadcast. Travelling to Grover’s Mill, NJ – the real-world setting for Welles’ fictional invasion, Meena searches for the truth with Jonathan’s family.

The cast uniformly shine, and physicality orchestrated by directors Hamish MacDougall, Julian Spooner and movement director Matthew Wells (also in the cast) give the show a totally static-free vibe as we shift time and space with the same ease as Welles’ radio storytelling. The show’s technical aspects are also impressive, with Nick Flintoff & Pete Maxey’s noir and sci-fi-drenched lighting illuminating moments with both a knowing humour and theatrical flair. This humour and subtlety also belong to the script, with its feet largely on the ground in rural New Jersey as the ideas it throws up gradually filter through. Multi-layered questions about medium, messages, truth and lies emerge from parallel stories set 80 years apart, told with a deceptive lightness and grace.

Rhum & Clay pack a great deal of fun and tightly-rolled ruminations into a highly enjoyable work. It isn’t entirely convincing that there are any new or convincing conclusions to be drawn upon leaving, but as Welles knew (and this is perhaps the overriding point) it is the medium and its story which is important. Rhum & Clay tell a good one and well.

Runs until 9 Feb 2019 | Image: Contributed

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score


The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

Related Articles

Back to top button