First, let’s get the biggest disappointment out of the way first: Them!, a joint production between the National Theatre of Scotland, writer Pamela Carter and director Stewart Laing, does not (Spoiler Alert!) feature any giant mutant ants, except in a trailer for the original 1954 film. Second: this curiously intriguing show-cum-art-installation (alas) ends up being noticeably less than the sum of its parts, concluding with a dissipated whimper, not a focused bang.
Giant ants may have been an effective metaphor for change in 1954, but how about 2019?
Carter and Laing's main concern appears to be about the narratives that we use to comprehend the world; specifically, the problem when an imaginative "what if", WHEN constantly repeated, inevitably becomes a predictable, restricting "must be" that's no longer fit for purpose. Initially, our way into this idea is through the cliches of a television chat show, part-Norton sparkle, part Oprah therapy. Our host is the delightfully "loud" Kiruna Stamell, keen to uncover the emotional roots (the "Man-opause"?) behind Guardian-reading director Laing suddenly wanting to make a musical action movie adaptation of "Them!".
Things start to evolve when the deliberately stilted Laing, playing himself, says he's had enough and exits the stage, to be replaced by an all-together more impassioned incarnation excellently performed by Ross Mann. But the disruptions continue: one of the cast members, "Prof", joins "The Director" on the sofa, arguing that 1950s' attitudes to technology and the role of men and women in science, as much as the expectations of what happens in a modern action movie, are no-longer fit-for-purpose. Giant ants may have been an effective metaphor for change in 1954, but how about 2019?
Or would AI-operated ant-like machines be a better metaphor? The nearest we get to this on stage are five young actors, playing self-adaptive robots representing some Netflix-owned Future. The questions continue when the intriguing figure of Toni (a startlingly compelling Rosina Bonsu) suddenly assumes the host's chair. It's Toni who invites us to move on to either Part Two of the show (a noisy night club, ear-plugs provided) or straight on to Part Three, where we can observe and follow some 150,000 leaf cutter ants from Trinidad in an extensive connection of boxes and tubes.
Fascinating stuff, but in portraying a television studio the makers seem to deliberately opt for an amateurish camera crew. Despite most of the action being shown on a large screen, no real effort is made (until the end) to improve access by adding subtitles. Worst of all, after wandering round the ant complex, there was no firmly policed route back into Tramway. I ended up in the car park at the back of the building. Or was that actually the point?