Review by Sam Waite
When it comes to entertainment, the word “stupid” can be a compliment. For comedic purposes, the more ridiculous and blatantly, irredeemably dumb a show is, is often for the better. In the case of The Time Machine – A Comedy, this level of stupidity is constant, deliberate, and delightful. Playing at London’s Park Theatre, this comedic spin on the sci-fi classic is a must-see for the holiday season.
The Time Machine begins as a “verbatim play” about the rehearsals of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which are disrupted by a discovery by company member Dave. A descendant of novelist HG Wells, his digging through family heirlooms has unearthed evidence that The Time Machine was not a work of fiction, but a retelling of Wells’ real-life adventures through time. Much to the dismay of fellow company founders Amy and Michael, Dave cancels their production of Earnest in favour of a new play based around his ancestor’s work and travels, soon stumbling upon real-life time travel technology himself.
With the play within a play motif stretched worryingly thin – multiple plays within this singular production, and possibly a play within one or two of those – the show gives into silliness from the outset. Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s script has a loose, malleable quality which makes it entirely plausible that this is a largely improvised play, with the diversions from rehearsed sections being genuine moments of distraction. Indeed, it can be difficult to tell which of the audience interactions are built into the text, and which are the actors’ genuine responses to the reactions and behaviour of their audience. There’s a slight awkwardness to the set-up, with us not knowing enough about the characters to find their fumblings charming just yet, but the actors and the production find their breezy, fast-moving stride quickly.
Best known as a founding member of Mischief Theatre, the minds behind the Goes Wrong plays and TV series, Dave Hearn takes on the role of Dave. It may not surprise you to learn that Amy Revelle and Michael Dylan play Michael and Amy, though perhaps not in that order. The buffoonish bravado of Dave (the character) is brought to marvellous life by Dave (the actor), and he proves his mastery of allowing an audience to quickly understand the kind of person he is playing with minimal exposition. No nonsense Cher-superfan Amy (the character) is played with a sense of palpable irritation as well as an easy likability by Revelle, giving just the right amount of snark in her deliveries without losing the warmth that undercuts the bickering among the actors (the fictional actors, not the real ones – it’s confusing, I know!)
Perhaps the most impressive performance, in terms of emotional range, comes from Dylan, whose Michael is as hilarious as his co-stars but goes through a strong emotional arc in the second act. Present in Hearn and Revelle’s work, Dylan is the one who most embodies a crumbling of the façade, wherein the characters being played slip away as the severity of act two’s plot settles into the forefront of his mind. As a group, the trio bounce off each other beautifully, greatly adding to the off-the-cuff, on-the-spot quality of the script. Their chemistry with not only each other but the audience pays of when volunteers (and maybe one or two lightly coerced patrons) are brought into the story with hysterical outcomes.
Central to the all-important tone is Orla O’Loughlin’s direction, which finds all three’s behaviour becoming less animated and deliberately performative as they settle into the “real” story. Both movement and delivery are rapidly softened when tragedy strikes, and O’Loughlin has, almost surprisingly, mined as much genuine humanity from the text as she has moments of blissful, ludicrous comedy. Designed by Fred Meller, the deliberately simple set adds to the believability of the piece as a rushed, amateurish production, while proving to be surprisingly adaptable when called for later in the performance.
Light and sound from Colin Grenfell and Greg Clarke, respectively, balance the need for something that seems cheap and cobbled together with something professional enough to be believed as really happening. Both succeed, with the awkward music cues and canned sound effects giving way to a truly breath-taking moment in which the audience themselves are used to create a soundscape, and the too-blunt, too-quickly-changed lights simplifying and becoming more tonally appropriate as the underlying dread of the climactic second half builds beneath the laughter.
A singular achievement in tone and performance, The Time Machine – A Comedy is a winning combination of outright stupidity and truly engaging storytelling. True, some of the laughter is at the delivery over the wit of the writing, and at least one gag is just a touch too similar to one in Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong. Still, this is a winning evening of theatre that demonstrates just how artful and well-constructed an absurd, purposefully silly work of comedy can be.
The Time Machine – A Comedy plays at the Park Theatre until December 30th
For tickets and information visit https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-time-machine--a-comedy
Photos by Manuel Harlan