Travelling to the London Library, where I was to watch Creation Theatre’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, I saw many people in face masks. The corona virus is on everyone’s mind. Fewer people are handshaking, door handles are being touched with sleeves, a cough on a tube carriage is met with frowns, and scarves drawn over noses. There is something eerie and manic in the air. Who would predict that in a few weeks, we would be in lockdown?
At the start of the performance, we are met by a spectral, pixelated man who greets us with a foreboding monologue, setting the scene, which had in many ways, already been set by my journey to the library. We are then met by the Time Traveller, played by Clare Humphrey, who, with wild-eyed intensity, pleads with us to follow her, for time has gone awry and things are not as they seem. She is affable, terrifying, and even tender in a few moments. She is the glue that binds the show together, guiding the audience through the story with assurance and an impressive rapport.
We are led through the London Library, which becomes a character itself; reading rooms ebbing with musty light, iron grated floors in the back-stacks, creaking along with Humphrey’s apocalyptic monologuing. There is something very steampunk and rickety about the whole affair. And the actors bleed seamlessly into the environment, lurking in shadowy nooks, creeping between the looming shelves. This is immersive theatre, done right. Director Natasha Rickman has created a living, howling production that ebbs from the shelves; almost as if the library itself is dreaming.
We meet a computer, played by Graeme Rose, along the way. Here, the complexity of time travel, its repercussions and paradoxes, are explored. Writer Jonathan Holloway deftly navigates this murky subject, keeping the audience engaged with wit and wonder. The bootstrap paradox is touched upon, as is Zeno’s arrow, which grows into a discussion on the limitations of language, particularly when describing the nature of time. It is rare to see a piece of theatre so heavily rooted in science fiction. It was a welcome change, and a heroic undertaking – exploring the mysteries and paradoxes of the universe in such a small space of time, while also rooting the story in emotion and giving the characters three dimensions.
The play really shone in the interactions between the characters. While the audience interaction and monologuing was enjoyable, and impressively delivered, it was in the moments of conflict, the exchange of ideas between characters, that the show became great. There is a scene between the Time Traveller and DRI, played by Sarah Edwardson, that gripped and would not let go. The Time Traveller attempts to warn DRI of the impending apocalypse, of the dystopian class division, of how livestock are made insensate, and begin to gnaw on each other, breeding pandemics. The Time Traveller is a voice of hope, DRI, the voice of tragic resignation. This battle that takes place is stunning in its emotion and vivid in its real-world associations.
Indeed, it is revealed after the show concludes that the show was written in 2019, before any talk of corona virus. The show is a work of disturbing prescience. It is also one that offers very little hope, with the Time Traveller’s voice, in the final scene, being silenced. It leaves you with a sense of injustice, in this regard. There was no happy ending. But perhaps this is the sort of thing we need to see now – a stark reminder that the world will decay if change is not enacted. Those who come to theatre for escapism will find no escape here, rather a wild-eyed roughing up.
About the author of this review
Christopher Baker is a writer, published in the Writers of the Future 35th anthology, with theatre work that has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He is currently studying an MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University and previously graduated from the Warwick Writing Programme with a First Class BA Hons. He is a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. His twitter is @TufferBaker