War With The Newts   – The Bunker, London

Writer and Director: Tyrrell Jones

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

Based on the classic sci-fi book by Czech writer Karel Ĉapek, War with the Newts tells the story of how an intelligent species of newts is put to work by greedy industrialists. Knaïve Theatre’s version, set in the present day, may be a comic take on 1936novel, but it retains the big ideas surrounding capitalism and colonialism. With Brexit around the corner, it’s a timely production.

At first the newts are used to collect oysters for fisherman, but soon they are tasked with building new coastlines for countries that are overpopulated. Britain’s housing crisis is solved almost overnight. But as the newts grow in numbers, they grow in strength, and within a few years they threaten human existence.

There are many metaphors in this play: perhaps too many. The newts could easily stand in for those immigrant workers who come to Britain to do the jobs that we don’t want to do. The newts also symbolise the way that robots are now doing more of our jobs, suggesting that there will be huge numbers of unemployed in the future. As the newts colonise the land, humans are forced to find sanctuary in Eastern Europe, highlighting the current refugee crisis.

Despite these multi-metaphors, the small cast of three do well in ensuring the story is always clear. Everal A Walsh has several roles, all of which require some very fruity accents (Yorkshire in the case of the sea-captain, Deep South for the American lawyer), but he brings a comic edge to them all. Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Sam Redway also have to employ a range of accents to differentiate their many characters. All three bustle around the stage made of small shipping containers, quickly slipping into their new roles as Rob Bentall’s impressive sound design fills the Bunker’s auditorium.

The zany atmosphere and the comedy accents seem more suited to a Fringe Festival, like Edinburgh where it received good reviews this summer than a cynical London audience. Some of the jokes fall flat here, and those expecting the ‘immersive experience’ promised by the publicity may be disappointed. A few stamps on the back of hands and being forced to sit on upturned shipping containers is not immersive, and the suggestion that we are newts or fleeing humans is never adequately resolved. The audience participation part is so half-hearted, that they may as will get rid of it. Without the stamps, the play could run quicker too, as it does drag towards the end of its 75 minutes.

However, the cast work so hard that it’s difficult not to admire their determination, and, importantly, they tell a good story. And the image of Redway as the British ambassador arriving to a peace conference with the enemy in a newt bath to demonstrate cultural sensitivity is worth a star all of its own.

Runs until 27 October 2018 | Image: The Other Richard


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