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Review: Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

A story about storytelling – Mr. Burns transcends time and space


In one of the most original and fascinating plays I’ve seen performed on the ADC stage, directors Joshua Robey and Emma Gibson offer a simultaneously bleak and hopeful view of a post-apocalyptic future. Their take on this bizarre and brilliant piece of work seeps with some incredible attention to detail – it is hard to even begin to try to encompass the brilliance displayed.

Part of the appeal of the play is that although we assume that the play’s events take place after some undefined apocalyptic event, much of the world and characters’ history is left to our imagination. What the play lacks in any hints of context, however, it makes up for with a method of world-building that is as engaging as it is bewildering, requiring the audience to put together the pieces of the story themselves. The one linking factor throughout all three acts is, peculiarly enough, an episode of The Simpsons entitled ‘Cape Feare’ which various generations of apocalypse survivors attempt to recreate in a mission to foster a sense of reborn culture in the most dire of times.

Welcome to the apocalypse! [Image Credits: Viv Wang]

What this production succeeds most in is creating an atmosphere of emotional whiplash that creates meaning in an intensely visceral, and overall cathartic, way. The utter despair of trying to survive in a world that is dying (powerfully conveyed in monologues by Qawiiah Bisiriyu and Tel Chiuri in the first and second acts that managed to completely switch the atmosphere to one of serious, and pertinent pain) is constantly fought against by an inexorable sense of hope, as the first cast attempt to recreate the experience of watching TV via cartoons, advertisements and even the MTV-esque medleys of songs. But this just makes moments like the absolutely gut-wrenching ending of the second act even more painful, and very poignant.

One of the most endearing qualities of this play is the actors’ abilities to convey the subtlest of emotions and plot dynamics. In the carefully choreographed mistakes and imperfections of the characters’ recreation of familiar concepts, there is an underlying sense of desperation, as Joe Morgan tries to keep up with upbeat dance numbers in spite of his missing wife, Alessandra Rey becomes a controlling director for a play that may never be seen, and Alice Roberts is a diva in search for stardom in a world that is quite literally falling apart. This skilful balancing of emotional tension via a brilliant cast is what successfully immerses the audience in their world, which could be our world soon; it’s how something as comical as The Simpsons is given a great capacity for truly epic themes and morals.

One of the most endearing qualities of this play is the actors’ abilities to convey the subtlest of emotions and plot dynamics. In the carefully choreographed mistakes and imperfections of the characters’ recreation of familiar concepts, there is an underlying sense of desperation, as Joe Morgan tries to keep up with upbeat dance numbers in spite of his missing wife, Alessandra Rey becomes a controlling director for a play that may never be seen, and Alice Roberts is a diva in search for stardom in a world that is quite literally falling apart. This skilful balancing of emotional tension via a brilliant cast is what successfully immerses the audience in their world, which could be our world soon; it’s how something as comical as The Simpsons is given a great capacity for truly epic themes and morals.

The performance, a mixture of various pop-culture references and in-jokes for our contemporary audience is simply breathtaking, absolutely stunning and (somewhat) shockingly deep. The realism of the first act compared with the second and third’s forced and sometimes entertainingly awkward musical acts creates a perfectly strange effect of simultaneous joy and pity that the casts are striving to recreate something they will never have again.

Theeeee … Simpsons? [Image Credits: Viv Wang]

Every performer was incredible, especially the talented chorus (Cara HardwickAugustin Denis, Betty Thompson) who had a gargantuan task in sustaining a musical base of some odd sounds and semblances of the English language, with that classic Simpson’s theme tune interwoven throughout. Jessi Rogers‘ rendition of Bart is as moving as it is silly, and the levels of irony and bathos are sustained at a perfect level throughout. Show-stealing performances were given by the most energetic duo of Itchy and Scratchy, played by the lovably devilish Rishi Sharma and Tom Shortland who absolutely stole the audience’s hearts, as well as the incredible Mr. Burns himself played by Theo Chen, whose performance is as sinister as it is audacious.

The operatic villains [Image Credits: Viv Wang]

The incredible effect of having renditions of The Simpsons be purposefully hap-hazard, given that they are attempting to put on plays in a world hanging on by a thread, is aided by the perfect mix of realistic set design and atmosphere creation in combination with the details of lighting and costuming. Rory Clarke‘s evocation of a real apocalyptic wasteland, where society dwells in the forest with whatever and whoever they can, is aided by Amelia Cordwell and Tungsten Tang‘s lighting design, using lights that do not need to be powered by the mains electricity, as a glowing chandelier and fairy lights hang over the audience. The creation of costumes for the opera out of recycled rubbish such as bottle-tops and plastic bags have the bonus added effect of hinting at some remnants of a life left behind, such as Bart’s iconic TK Maxx bag shirt, to the credit of Jessi Rogers and Sophie Campbell who, like the opera’s cast, literally make do with what they have.

Apart from being an innovative show solely based on the writing talent and vision of writer Anne Washburn, real merit ought to be given to the adaptation of this play for the ADC stage in some truly wonderful and harrowingly effective directorial choices. For example, as the cast of the first act is not given a final bow, the curtain never rises, and the audience is left sat with a jarringly empty feeling that is strangely nostalgic and evocative of the potential emptiness of our post-apocalyptic futures. Details like the radioactive-fish-covered frame, lights, and acting amidst the audience allow the audience access to this world in a profoundly prominent way so that the plot’s elusiveness means that it is timeless rather than confusing overall.

A set in the middle of the forest [Image Credits: Viv Wang]

Whether it’s by laughing along to the lyrics of Britney Spear’s ‘Toxic’ performed by Mr Burns himself or sitting languishing in the gaps of silence between listing the names of missing friends and family, there will be something for everyone to take away from this production. Intensely post-modern, this stellar production allows you to truly be absorbed into a world that is ours, but does not belong to us. Our stories are warped, reality as we know it is ruined, and the only things that endure are a singular episode of The Simpsons and the unstoppable hope of humanity.

Mr Burns. is as jarring and hilarious as it is moving and harrowing; it is honestly a show that cannot entirely be encapsulated in words, and I will happily dare to say that this ADC rendition of it is one whose dignity and afterlife are secured.

5/5

Mr. Burns is showing from the 13th–17th of June at 7:45 pm in the ADC Theatre. Book your tickets here.