Mr Burns** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: July 12, 2014 in Theatre

photo-137Never having seen an episode of The Simpsons from beginning to end, I approached this with some trepidation. Anne Washburn’s play, which turns into a musical in its later stages, is set in a world in which, following a nuclear catastrophe, there is no electricity and all that is left for the survivors to do is to mull over and recreate old episodes of the television cartoon series. Act I, set in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, sees a group huddled around a camp fire discussing a specific episode in minute detail. Not helped by the performance being in half light, it is difficult to engage with the characters on stage and impossible to imagine that even the most fanatical of Simpsons devotees would not find this discussion excruciatingly boring. Act II, set seven years later, is not much better; now, in this post-electric society, the only form of entertainment is performing episodes of the cartoon, pieced together from memory, with rival groups competing with each other and trading lines from the scripts as a form of currency. Everything that is of interest in this show comes in the completely bonkers, musical Act III, set 75 years later and consisting of a re-enactment of the episode under discussion in Act I, wildly distorted by the passage of time. Here we see the Simpson family facing up to its nemesis, the satanic Mr Burns, in a battle of good versus evil. All this seems to add up to a satire on the pervasive influence of American popular culture, yet, in the final act which is filled with pious moralising and ceremonial rituals, there are hints that Washburn could be aiming at a bigger target – that of all organised religion. However, what she seems to forget is that any successful satire needs to be sharp and incisive; by stretching this one out to 2 hours 45 minutes (including two intervals) and allowing two thirds of it to become mired in longueurs, she has effectively extracted its teeth. On the plus side, the show is highly original and performed with gusto – who would have thought that Jenna Russell, a wonderful leading lady in Sondheim musicals, might progress to playing Bart Simpson? Washburn deserves credit for attempting something ambitious and different, but, sadly, she fails to pull it off.

Performance date: 11 July 2014

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