BART SIMPSON’S LEGEND SURVIVES THE APOCALYPSE: DO WE CARE?
A child of the Cold War, I have read post-apocalyptic fiction all my life: from John Wyndham and Kuttner to Nevil Shute – even E.M.Forster had a go. New girl on the bleak old block is Anne Washburn, with this serio-comic “post-electric play”. It’s about East Coast USA after a nuclear catclysm (the hand lettered Act I sign says SOON). The power stations are going up one by one, and the first-act characters huddle in (real) firelight in equally real pitch darkness, telling tales.
The idea, much chewed-over in programme notes, is how remembered myths and legends grow, as the oral tradition adorns stories to make sense of life. That could have been very interesting: manna to theatre-addicts hooked on live narrative. But her prediction – and a very depressing one it is too – is that the only thing everyone, even educated East-Coasters, can remember will be The Simpsons cartoons. So they sit round the fire for twenty solid minutes attempting, with a painful disjointed slowness which I fear the author thinks is Beckettian, to remember one episode frame by frame. One parodying a Scorsese film. Very hipster. A lone stranger arrives and joins the gang (after a quite poignant little moment when the others ask whether he has met any survivors they know). He remembers an important line from the episode.and can sing a relevant bit of Gilbert and Sullivan referred to in it.
In Act 2 (“seven years later”) the same bunch, in a makeshift HQ, have developed their obsession into am-dram reconstructions of Simpsons shows, with amusingly makeshift costumes and an empty TV set as a shrine with a mirror and candle in it. The characters do develop, a bit (Adrian der Gregorian, Demetri Goritsas and Jenna Russell particularly). We learn that there are rival groups – “The Rewinds” and “Primetime Players” – and that turf wars rage over the trading of remembered lines. They do commercials too, yearning for Diet Coke and bath-oil, and perform an excerpt from FAME on a home-made wooden pink Cadillac. We suspect they won’t live long.
The third act gives yet more scope to Tom Scutt’s nicely wild design: it is set 75 years later when the whole Simpsons shenanigan has evolved into a chanted operatic solemnity. Robed priests, acolytes and a resplendently golden family enact a bizarre cross between African folk-dance and Aztec ritual, taking in bits of the earlier memories including the G and S, and some nice creepy harmonies by Orlando Gough and Michael Henry. The evil Mr Burns – boss of the nuclear plant in the cartoon, but done up like a geriatric Russell Brand – has a final confrontation with Bart. Some moments are quite moving, thanks to the music.
The Almeida sometimes has a knack for polishing up base metals until you leave thinking hey, maybe there was gold there after all. Until you remember that there wasn’t. However dodgy the play, its staging and performances are invariably fine. When it’s a stunner like Ghosts, 1984, Chimerica or The Dark Earth and the Light Sky then content and presentation combine to shine brighter than any stage in London. When it is just ironic fashionable misogyny like American Psycho, or an undercooked news-quizzy script like Charles III, you at least come away pleased at the high production values and performances.
Here, theatrical skill does its absolute best, but can’t crack it. The final operatic act and the silly Cadillac dance are memorable for goodish reasons – we love a spectacle. The rest is frankly excruciating. Which is ironic, since the brilliance of Matt Groening’s TV Simpsons is that it never milks a joke or outstays its welcome. For all her encyclopadic familiarity with the canon, this lesson seems not to have sunk in to the playwright.
box office 0207 359 4404 to 26 July Supported by ASPEN