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Mr Burns. Almeida Theatre.

July 16, 2014

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 12th July 2014).

A few months ago, I amazed a tweenager when I informed him that Shakespeare probably didn’t write the exact text we know today. What we know is based on actors’ memories, years after the plays were performed. Nothing was actually recorded at the time, so the best we can do is hope we got some of it right.

“Mr Burns” is all about the concept of presenting a memory, and its distortion over time. Sadly, it failed to convince me – through a total failure of logic. Sure, the setting may be “post electric,” when America has suffered a disaster which turns off the current and leaves survivors keeping morale up by recounting “The Simpsons” episodes (an effective and morbid contrast with written lists they all carry of loved ones whose whereabouts is lost; a clumsy device from author Anne Washburn, but you can let it go as it does work).

Anyway, 7 years and a 20 minute interval later, the same survivors are scratching a living performing those same remembered episodes – in bitter competition with other companies who are better resourced and who can pay more to other survivors who remember lines.

And there come the logic failures which fatally flaw the piece. First, we are asked to allow that in 7 years, no progress has been made to restore power – despite no indicator that infrastructure has been destroyed (the company are holed up in a rather nice studio in act two).

Second, in act one, the company hints at nuclear power plants exploding due to lack of maintenance… if that happened, they’d all be dead of either radiation poisoning or “total nuclear winter.”

Therefore, if humans had survived, so would “The Simpsons” episodes they struggle to recall; in both book and DVD form. The latter would quite easily be playable even on battery operated devices (batteries being something the author makes a point of saying are available).

The author actually admits defeat at this point, by SPOILER ALERT wiping out the cast in a terrorist attack. SPOILER ENDS.

That leaves act three. 75 years on, “The Simpsons” and religion have melded into a religious / theatrical experience (aren’t they all – I can’t have been the only one thinking “Oh God” at this point) which seems endless and undoes what might have been a fairly interesting tale up until then. We are left with a bunch of unknowns performing some very strange fusion indeed Interminable.

Quite simply, a play about memory in a time where everything is recorded, is built-in irrelevant. “The Simpsons” exists in various media for all time. Hence I simply couldn’t discern any intelligent developments in the writing, other than the old “if we don’t watch ourselves we’ll be extinct by some conveniently round-number year in the future” (and yes, even I’m old enough to remember when those dates were the future but are now way in the past. So much for all that guff).

Oddly, the first two acts at least are watchable. Tom Scutt’s designs are intelligent, Philip Gladwell a clever lighting designer allowing act 1 to be done by a single (gas) campfire’s light. Robert Icke does the directing job he is paid for, getting this thing on stage with a credible cast of survivors who seem almost real – Demetri Goritsas, Justine Mitchell and Michael Shaeffer in particular.

The idea itself – that popular culture will transcend human disaster – is a decent take on the old “apocalypse” saw. But the clumsiness of thinking, the third act and wasted opportunity of a satisfactory conclusion just left me feeling that this was almost, but not quite, a total waste of talent in every all round, alas.

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