It’s always fun going to see a piece of theatre where you really don’t know what to expect. Even if I had read up on The Almeida’s current play, Mr Burns, I still wouldn’t have been prepared for what I saw. I’ll try and give a summary that won’t ruin it; post apocalyptic America meets The Simpsons meets modern musical montage meets the opera.
When in conversation with one the Almeida’s passionate Marketing Managers I was given a piece of advice, stick with it. Granted, it’s not the most comforting sentiment to take into a play that would take over my evening for nigh on three hours, but in the end, for me, it was completely unnecessary advice. I loved it from start to finish. However, I can understand why she told me to stick with it as the play makes startling leaps of plot, style, and scenery from one act to the next. If every act were like the first, then I might prefer to find a nice bar for the evening instead, thankfully, they absolutely were not. (That said, I really enjoyed the first Act.)
The first Act begins with a very stationary scene in a desolate, bashed up commune, huddled around (and only lit by) a camp fire. This Act very much sets the ground work for the later Acts which are far more stylised and therefore more difficult to follow. It seems that much of America has been destroyed and some areas are also suffering from nuclear plant explosions. The threat of radiation is also often apparent. This devastation is brought up at poignant moments and are heartbreakingly portrayed as the vain hopes of hearing if loved ones are still alive are dashed. I loved how the play threw us (the audience) into this strange, devastated world, without leading us by the hand. We had to join up the dots, make connections, and pay attention to the intriguing details and cutting emotions, rather than having the plot hand fed to us. It was brave and very effective for a play that was at times so abstract.
Although a defining factor of the play, the apocalyptic aspect mostly takes a back seat to, yes, The Simpsons. The play seems to highlight our connection to popular culture and uses The Simpsons as medium in which the characters are able to connect with each other, reminisce, and, of course, entertain.
Each of the three Acts is a surprisingly fast paced 45 minutes, with two intervals of approximately 20 minutes in which incredible transformations and a leap of 5, and then 75, years take place. It was disappointing to see those empty seats after the first half from people who clearly didn’t stick with it. If they did not find the first Act to their liking, I am sure they would have been pleasantly surprised with the coming two, which were so startlingly different, yet somehow with the same underlying threat of disaster, lead by a queer dependence on The Simpsons; The Simpsons, a survival tactic.
I found the play immensely enjoyable. No, it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, it’s certainly no Shakespeare or kitchen sink drama, but it is challenging and visually and audibly brilliant, funny, inspired, clever and heart-warming.
Mr Burns at the Almeida Theatre runs until the 26th of July 2014, catch it while you can (…even if you’re not a huge Simpsons fan).