Time travel as a sci-fi trope is fascinating and presents us with endless possibilities and frontiers. It seems very apt - this year in particular - to remember and pay homage to the author who is credited with establishing the genre. Directed by Orla O’Loughlin, Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s
A compelling play, promising us laughter before sucker punching us in the gut with paradoxes and the isolation that knowledge can bring
The phrase ‘very loosely adapted from the novel by H.G. Wells’ that is printed on the front of the programme is the best way to describe this show. What we believe to be a silly comedy turned quasi-magic show full of an almost aggressive level of audience participation, quickly shows us through the precision of its execution how rational thought and theatre magic can coexist to create the possibility of something that even our imaginations cannot fully comprehend. We are firstly introduced to Dave Wells (Dave Hearn), Amy (Amy Revelle) and Michael (Michael Dylan), an amateur theatre company putting on an adaptation of The Time Machine, who use their show to try and prove that time travel is real with only a slight mockery of confirmation bias. When confronted with a fixed point in time, the trio must use all of their wibbly wobbly, timey wimey knowledge to try to break the paradox, whilst finishing Dave’s play.
The show does stay true to H.G. Wells' novel by providing a level of underlying analysis, that like Wells, is of the time and relevant to what we are experiencing today. It’s more people-centric than Wells’ messaging; more concerned with inter-personal relationships and what we owe each other than class relations, which makes for a truly brilliant script. Canny and Nicholson reject the structure that Wells and other authors of his time used to distance readers from the fantastical events of the main plotline; the story within a story within a story, making the fantastical more real, except Nicholson and Canny have managed to do just that without the added distance of a literary device. Every moment is perfectly crafted to contribute to the sense of realism. The writing stays true to – if not every scene- at least the sentiment of Wells’ novel, giving us a glimpse into how the time travelling tropes that we know and love have developed into what they are today. The tropes themselves take on a new life, both in providing comic relief, but then changing direction to create deeply poignant moments that leave us with a hollow feeling that is hard to shake.
Every part of the technical design absorbs and boosts the comic tone of the writing, on occasion taking on the role of punchline and contributing to the hilarity of the show. This requires so much precision on the part of the creative team, and whether it’s something in Colin Grenfell’s lighting or Gregory Clarke’s sound design, their ability to come together and use theatre tech for comedic purposes is incredibly enjoyable to witness. Fred Meller’s design of the show mimics and emphasises the tongue-in-cheek nature of the jokes, to the point of making the saying, “been there, done that, got the T-shirt" made literal. The minimalist nature of the set allows our imaginations to fill in the gaps, to see each setting for ourselves without cluttering the stage. The mausoleum backdrop is a little unsettling, in that it looks like it was repurposed from the Emerald City, but the detailing on it is almost illusory, revealing extra hidden features that initially appear as a trick of the light.
The cast are spectacular and their dynamic is central to this show. The trio play off each other with an ease and naturalness that only comes from a place of true camaraderie, hitting the various notes and tropes one after another, never once ending up in a comedic cul-de-sac to the point where it’s hard to tell whether a phone call interrupting the show is just that. Each cast member is given the chance to showcase their abilities - whether it’s a swan-song Shakespearean soliloquy, performing songs to the iconic level of Cher or delivering gut-wrenching moments that will haunt us forever – this cast is completely perfect for their roles, complimenting and supporting each other as the show develops.
Hearn quickly lives up to his reputation as a talented comedic actor, approaching the role with an over-dramatic seriousness, creating a character with a kind of high-brow and undeserved self-confidence (or arrogance) that in any other circumstance would be extremely frustrating to watch. But it is in the more muted moments, where more gravitas is required, that he comes into his own as a dramatic actor, completely changing how we perceive Dave and Bertie and what we think we know about them. It is through the absolute tiniest of details and micro expressions that we see behind the words and the jokes into the heart of these characters. It is here that Hearn's innate talent is on display the most, and completely captures the spirit of the H.G. Wells who said, “I told you so. You damned fools”. He is the kind of detached expert who has no power over the situation and can only watch as their predictions come true, and it is in this aspect of the role that Hearn's performance creates such heart-rending, emotionally devastating moments that leave us stunned and unsettled. Maybe it’s the hope that we have, that we see through Dave, and Hearn really keeps that hope alive for us in his performance.
If all three characters are meant to be examples of different reactions when presented with hardships or complex crises, Revelle's performance demonstrates why Amy is the kind of person that we should aspire to be. She gives the character so much ferocity and depth, that it makes us believe in the innate goodness of people. We buy into her relationship with the other characters because she does not for a minute make us doubt that she would do whatever she could -whether it is in her power or not – to help her friends, turning a character who initially seems quite shallow beyond her obsession with Cher into a force of nature to be reckoned with, showing just how important and useful caring can be. Her navigation of the different roles within the show is remarkable, showcasing her range as an actress, the powerhouse that is her voice and flexibility in navigating between contrasting emotional states.
Very early on, Michael is established as a source of light-hearted comic relief; the overly anxious blunderer whose eagerness is quickly put down by his friends. Dylan makes the character so much more. Michael’s character arc shifts more gradually than the other two characters, and Dylan’s emotionally charged performances pushes the extremes of the amount of pathos that an actor can evoke in an audience. It’s because of Dylan’s performance that we buy into the stakes of the play, but also become more invested in the outcome, because whilst the other two are following more logical steps that are easy to rationalise, Dylan performs to the heart rather than the head, setting and controlling the overall tone. He balances the comedy and tragedy, with his comic timing and how he throws his entire self into his performance, never letting the atmosphere settle too much.
The Time Machine is a compelling play, promising us laughter before sucker-punching us in the gut with paradoxes and the isolation that knowledge can bring. The comedy makes it easier to process; hitting all the right notes with precision, with roundabout gags and call-backs that buoy the actors' banter and bickering. But it’s really the quiet moments - the swan-song soliloquy or the detached existentialism- that really showcase the talent of the creative team and cast. The Time Machine is a comedy that will make you feel like you've had your heart ripped out of your chest.