Note: A review of the performance on Tuesday 9th January 2018.
This was one of those happy cultural occasions when I set out with little expectation for a production and enjoyed what turned out to be both a funny and thought provoking evening.
First, a confession. Despite my day job (as a historian who specialises in the United States) I had never seen an episode of the 1950s-60s TV show from which this play is adapted. Fortunately, I can report if you're in the same boat it really doesn't matter. Adaptor Anne Washburn selects eight episodes originally broadcast between 1959 and 1964 and then intercuts them with each other. Storylines include trying to identify a Martian among a group of travellers in a diner, a portal to another dimension opening beneath a child's bed (the occasion for the glorious explanation for summoning a friend to assist: “He's a physicist!”), a tragedy of cryogenic freezing, a man tormented in his dreams by a woman dressed as a cat (the occasion for a fine cabaret number) and the threatened nuclear war mentioned in the title. We shall return to the last mentioned later.
Early on while I enjoyed it I did slightly wonder what exactly the point was of the careful translation from screen to stage. After that I was enjoying the quality of staging and performances so much that I was prepared to accept it on its own terms. And the central segment of the second half finds a completely new power.
I've not always got on with the work of Richard Jones, but his most recent shows which I've seen have all been very fine and this is another one to add to that list. With the assistance of Paul Steinberg (set), Nicky Gillibrand (costume), Aletta Collins (Choreography), Mimi Jordan Sherin (Light) and Sarah Angliss/Christopher Shutt (Sound) and others Jones conjures a visual spectacle which is a joy to watch and has a nice humorous note to it. The hints of camera framing are cleverly done, as are the scene changes with starry garbed extras (or possibly members of the ensemble) pretending to blend in with the walls as they await their next move.
The fine staging is matched by the work of the exceptional ensemble. All of them play multiple roles, and switch characters with an ease and skill not often seen. I was especially struck by the quality and variety of American accents. The slightly artificial air to some of the pauses and interchanges playing up, it seemed to me, an older TV manner verging at times on melodrama is also impeccably done – enough to poke a little fun at it, without abandoning that crucial sympathy for the characters however odd.
And then there's the coup of the central scene of the second half. Suddenly the humour falls away as a group of inhabitants of a typical suburban American street are confronted by an announcement of impending nuclear war. Only one, the local doctor, has taken the precaution to construct a fallout shelter. When he denies access to the others the normal social bonds quickly break, and insults, especially racial, fly. The scene has a remarkable charge for our current political moment. Firstly because, perhaps for the first time since the end of the Cold War such a scenario no longer seems inconceivable. Secondly, because in this comparatively short episode (and the final address to audience) this show succeeds in saying more about the current state of the United States, particularly about race and questions of fact versus fiction (an issue applicable well beyond the US) than the host of mostly overdone “issue” plays I sat through in 2017.
This is, in short, a rather marvellous evening. The second half could be tightened a little, the show doesn't quite know where to go after the fallout shelter scene, and the final monologue would be punchier if shortened, but these are minor criticisms. As, I suspect, this is too quirky (and possibly has too large an ensemble) for a transfer, I strongly recommend catching it at the Almeida before the run ends in late January.