Theatre review: Mr Burns at the Almeida

The cast in Mr Burns. Picture credit: Manuel Harlan

The cast in Mr Burns. Picture credit: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

For a while I didn’t watch much TV. But then they invented HBO, and The Sopranos, and on demand, and suddenly everyone was watching The Wire, and talking about The Wire, and we all agreed it was the best show ever.

Until other best-show-evers came along, like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, and I got sucked into those, and now I’m onto Fargo, with a stack of box sets awaiting my attention.

When will it all end?

The Almeida’s latest play, Mr Burns, supposes our increasingly obsessional devotion to television – for I don’t think I’m alone in this – will survive even nuclear catastrophe, like the cultural equivalent of cockroaches.

Directed by Robert Icke, the man behind the Almeida’s hit adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, it is set in a post-apocalyptic America.

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The world is in tatters: society destroyed, the population all-but wiped out, and no more power stations to drive reruns of The Simpsons.

And yet, even without electricity, the huge importance of TV to our lives – and of Springfield’s most famous residents in particular – endures.

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I’m sure they have other worries besides, like staying alive in a lawless and hostile world, but in this vision of a troubled future from writer Anne Washburn, survivors seem most concerned about remembering exactly what Marge said in that episode where that thing happened.

The play is split into three ever-more surreal acts. In the first, a small group huddle around a fire, recounting Simpsons lines like a group of stoned students on a camping trip, but with better Homer impressions.

In the second and third, as time passes, The Simpsons becomes increasingly important to this world.

Fiercely competitive amdram companies tour episode recreations – embellishing their performances with staged ad breaks – and Simpsons lines become currency in a dangerous blackmarket.

Later, in the inventive, at times baffling, and almost entirely musical third act, it takes on a religious quality.

This is the play’s centrepiece (albeit not in a chronological sense), a kaleidoscopic acid trip melding The Simpsons with religious cults, hints of Apocalypse Now, Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker, and the music of Ricky Martin. It’s as barmy as it sounds, and not very intelligible, but one of the most creative pieces of theatre I’ve witnessed.

I’m not completely sure what this play is trying to say. Perhaps it is simply taking our obsession with TV to the extreme, or considering how we would live without it; the programme notes suggest themes of storytelling and memory.

Whatever the point, it’s certainly an original, witty (although admittedly winning many of its laughs by drawing on the humour of its source material), energetic and enjoyable ride.

Now where did I leave that remote? I must try that True Detective I’ve been hearing all about...

Rating: Four stars

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