Review – Mr Burns by Anne Washburn at the Almeida Theatre

The Almeida Theatre has become a must-visit destination on my theatre calendar over the last few months and I therefore took the plunge and booked Mr Burns when the new season was announced. The You Tube videos from its NYC run looked bizarre but intriguing and I do like to try theatre that’s a bit different. I admit the reviews did make me steel myself before my visit, but it’s always crucial to make up your own mind.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I saw Mr Burns and it’s taken all this time for me to be able to put my thoughts about it in to words, as it is quite frankly like nothing else I have seen. As my friend put it – it defies description. Mr Burns doesn’t comfortably fit in to any set category of play, which is one aspect I quite liked about it and it certainly dares to be different and challenge its audience on many levels.

Stories around the campfire in Act 1

For me its three Acts elicited very different responses. The play opens in the pitch black with just a campfire to light the scene, although my eyes soon adjusted and unlike earlier comments, the theatre certainly didn’t feel oppressively hot. This opening Act was by far my favourite and I could have happily watched a whole play expanding on this setting and world. Details are sketchy, but there has clearly been an accident involving America’s nuclear reactors, leading to an apocalyptic-level population reduction. The small group on stage have met through their nomadic travels to safer ground and spend their time recalling an episode of The Simpsons, brining familiarity and normalcy to their situation. I found this Act interesting, thought-provoking and quite moving, as you see them desperately reciting names of those they hope to hear word of when a new person appears in their midst, while their shared memory of The Simpsons (even from those who’d never watched it) adds a welcome, lighter tone in places.

A little more surreal in Act 2!
A little more surreal in Act 2!

Act 2 was when events become far more surreal. Seven years later and the survivors of Act 1 are an acting troupe, performing adverts, excerpts from TV shows and music medleys as a way to keep memories from the old world alive. Again we see the same Simpsons episode being brought to life and a truly hysterical medley, combining the most eclectic mix of songs possible from 8 Mile to Toxic! Life is still clearly difficult for the surviving population and just as you settle in to the laughter of lighter moments, things take a darker turn.

So far, so surreal, but still relatively enjoyable – however, this was probably where I should have left. Act 3 still leaves me speechless (and not really in a good way). The final Act is set a further 80 years ahead, in a setting which is not totally clear, but where it appears aspects of the old world are now seen very differently, as we see the same Simpsons episode, distorted through word of mouth passed along, presented as some form of tribal, ritualistic spectacle of worship. I questioned whether such an effect would really happen in so short a timespan. Surely it would take generations for such a distortion of the past to occur? The best way for me to describe it is that it felt like being inside someone’s warped mind or watching a nightmare that distorts your normal world in to something only marginally recognisable and I really did not enjoy it.

Act 3 was a bit to much for me!
Act 3 was a bit to much for me!

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the questions the play raises – whether our memories of the past are really our own, or are only shaped through what people collectively remember and whether over time what is recalled about something could become understandably distorted through circumstance, until it is barely recognisable. Perhaps something as normal as The Simpsons could become elevated to god-like worship in the future?! These are interesting ideas to contemplate and many of Mr Burns’s elements were good. The dark, tense, sad atmosphere of Act 1 was super to watch and the efforts of the troupe to recreate mundane adverts and musical medleys in Act 2 was hilarious, entertaining and brilliantly acted. However, although I can appreciate the idea behind Act 3, I just didn’t enjoy it and by the end I couldn’t wait for it to be over. It does however contain a truly brilliant performance by Michael Shaeffer as Mr Burns, who has become a terrifying, nightmarish figure, who truly unsettled me.

Michael Shaeffer's disturbingly creepy Mr Burns
Michael Shaeffer’s disturbingly creepy Mr Burns

Overall the acting is good. The cast certainly have a lot to do, jumping tonally from dark to comic and back again over the course of the production. I also thought the set was fantastic for each Act, evoking the mood and atmosphere required and moving from dark and sparse to bright and colourfully opulent.

As a result, I’m not sure whether I’d recommend Mr Burns or not! If you prefer your theatre to be safe and comfortingly familiar, stay away. However if you’re willing to embrace something bravely different and take a risk, then give it a go. Although you have been warned about that third Act!

Despite my misgivings about this production, I love that the Almeida under Rupert Goold is daring to push the boundaries of theatre and get people talking, which can only be a good thing.

Mr Burns continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 26 July 2014. See the theatre’s website for more information:

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