Review: Mr Burns at the Almeida Theatre
Watching a group of people sit around a camp fire trying and sometimes failing to recall the details of a particular episode of The Simpsons is a tedious as it sounds. You had to be there or, in this case, had to have watched it. And with just the campfire for light, literally, it can also have a soporific affect for an end of week-weary audience.
Anne Washburn's play, Mr Burns*, is the latest offering from the Almeida. It is set in the future when, for reasons not explained, there is no electricity, one deadly side effect of which is that nuclear power plants start to degrade and leak radiation.
With none of the usual electricity-powered forms of entertainment available, the group in question passes the dark, fearful evenings trying to remember plots and favourite lines from Simpsons episodes.
In essence Mr Burns is about how an episode of The Simpson's travels through the guts of an apocalypse. And on that level it is very clever.
In the second act the action has moved forward seven years and entertainment or rather lines from popular shows like the Simpsons have become currency. As have snatches of popular songs and 'adverts' from the life lost. It is competitive and cut-throat; it is showbiz, after all.
It is a dazzling smorgasbord of Gilbert & Sullivan, pop songs, advertising and classical Greek theatre as interpreted through the "new" modern creative mind. It is very clever and you can have fun un-picking the references and influences but, as regular readers will know, I'm not fond of musicals so it did grow tiresome quite quickly.
There is a great deal to admire about Mr Burns and there are some interesting ideas about the legacy of modern culture and reinterpretation of what has gone before. The danger and fear of living in a new dark age floats on the fringes as does the absurdity of the situation. Pub-style conversations centre around topics such as where all the Diet Coke has gone if there are so few people left alive to consume it, for example.
The problem is, it takes a long time to really get into its stride. The first act is quite dull. There are two intervals for major scene changes and after the first it was already losing people. More left at the second interval which seemed a shame as you don't really get to appreciate how everything that has come before, even if it is laboured, influences the final act. Two people even left during the final act with disgruntled mutterings.
Part of the disengagement might be down to it being so heavily centred on The Simpsons. I've seen the odd episode so get the gist of the show and the characters. If you haven't, a lot of the subtlety is going to be lost on you.
I'd say this is Marmite theatre but I didn't hate it, which might surprise Poly a little. I can appreciate its cleverness even if it assumes a bit too much prior knowledge and its pace is hideously out for at least half of the evening. The latter may improve, as this was a preview but I, personally, don't think anything other than a hefty edit would really do the trick.
It runs at the Almedia until July 26 and is two hours and forty including two intervals.
*For those unfamiliar with the long-running, satirical cartoon series Mr Burns is the unscrupulous and ruthless millionnaire who owns the nuclear power station in the fictitional Springfield where the Simpsons live.
There are several second degree connections but my favourite is that Annabel Scholey was in Richard III with Kevin Spacey who famously 'spotted' Mr Whishaw's talents at a RADA showcase when he was still a student. He then interviewed Ben and Samantha Whittaker when they were doing Hamlet.