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Mr. Burns @ Loco Klub ★★★★

Stunning costume, tactile use of space, and the infamous Mr. Burns impress in Spotlights' immersive show. Miles Jackson reviews.

By Miles Jackson, Third year Film & TV

Stunning costume, tactile use of space, and the infamous Mr. Burns impress in Spotlights' immersive show. Miles Jackson reviews.

Spotlights / Lion Schellerer

Having seen the Almeida Theatre’s 2014 production of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, I was surprised to learn that Bristol’s Spotlights were attempting their own interpretation. It is a beguiling, deeply frustrating yet endlessly fascinating play, one that has scarcely left my mind in the years since and provides a number of unique challenges that even a professional theatre company might struggle with.

Luckily, Clare Packham’s production at The Loco Klub rises to the challenge, making superb use of an unconventional space to tease out the play’s darkest undercurrents.

Set in an America ravaged by a nuclear apocalypse, the play takes place over the course of a century, with the production opening on a group sat around a campfire attempting to recall the plot of The Simpsons episode ‘Cape Feare’, before jumping ahead to the group having formed a travelling theatre troupe that struggles to keep themselves afloat in a world where jokes from The Simpsons serve as a form of currency. The final act shows a bizarre, Mad Max-esque performance in which ‘Cape Feare’ is performed musically and ritualistically, with the episode’s lines and meaning garbled over decades of Chinese whispers.

Spotlights / Lion Schellerer

Packham’s production makes ingenious use of the performance space, a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels beneath Temple Meads, with each act set in a different room with a new set and different staging. The harsh, sullen brickwork in the cold venue serves as a perfectly apocalyptic setting. The fluid staging allows Packham’s production to change based on the needs of each act, with the first act being particularly engaging owing to its in-the-round staging. Despite the levity of half-remembered Simpsons jokes, danger is never far from the characters, and the sparsely lit first act takes on a thrilling quality of unease as the cast is exposed from all sides.

Indeed, technically the production belies its small scale with some intriguing production features, particularly in the gonzo third act where Ellie Fulford and her team’s superb costume design is both amusingly ostentatious and believably minimal; the materials feel as though they might have been scavenged from a dilapidated nuclear world. In what is a minor disappointment, the second act pares down the set and costuming to the bare essentials, a shame given the fascinating lore and culture suggested in Washburn’s script in this segment that might have been realised onstage.

Spotlights / Lion Schellerer

Still, the second act remains eminently watchable on account of a committed cast, who are admirably able to flip on a dime from naturalistic comedy to terse bouts of tension, whilst the American accents - typically a pitfall of any student production - are for the most part solid. Of particular note are Talisker Horton, who perfectly sells a sense of lurking paranoia and mistrust in a monologue about apocalypse-induced amnesia. Conversely, Ada Player’s Maria nails the play’s flippant humour with deadpan deliveries that always get the audience laughing.

Even in the play’s third act - which I’ve always found more enjoyable to think about than to actually watch - the musical performances and tasteful arrangements by the band enliven the piece. There’s an appropriate sense of deification to Jack Prowse’s Mr. Burns, who has at some point over the century replaced Sideshow Bob as the villain of ‘Cape Feare’, the head of a nuclear power plant becoming the perfect antagonist for this fearful world.

Spotlights / Lion Schellerer

When Burns booms ‘I’m never leaving / I don’t go away / I will be here Bart Simpson for Forever’, it rings true to the horrific and scarred world Washburn presents. It could also be said of this play as a whole, which thanks to this involving, amusing production will continue to rattle around my head for the foreseeable future.

(Featured image credits: Lion Schellerer)


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