The Time Machine at Assembly Roxy is one show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe that without a doubt deserves to be as successful as its sister production this year “Austen’s Women” as it comes from the same production company, Dyad Productions. Dyad are building for themselves as a company a solid reputation for impressive theatre, and The Time Machine is no exception.
Written and directed by Elton Townend Jones and with creative direction from Rebecca Vaughan, (Austen’s Women) this re-invention of the 120 year old HG Wells classic story stays close to the original source material while at the same time bringing into focus our own contemporary follies as a society as we speed at our own pace through time towards H G Wells’ bleak final outcome for the human race. All of this is impressively told in an outstanding solo performance over 90 minutes by Stephen Cunningham with a little assistance from some background sound effects, sparse, but well used lighting (just watch those well thought out shadows) and an amazing script to work from.
Stephen Cunningham is a natural story teller and this whole production not only rests on his impressive acting ability, but his talents as a story teller to pull an audience into his world and hold them there. There is a very sparse stage set here, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest as both the script and Stephen’s ability to create the world of his story around him is what matters and it is part of the enduring magic of live theatre that we as an audience soon start to visualise this world of time travel so quickly in our own mind’s eye. There is something very primeval in our need as human beings to be told a story, and perhaps this show somehow taps into that very basic instinct and desire.
You don’t have to know the original source material or be familiar with the far flung future fates of humanity as it splits into the Eloi and the Morlocks, as this story will do all that is required to bring you up to speed on everything. There are also some nice updates to contemporary items in an ancient and long forgotten museum which of course make no sense to our time traveller.
As with all good theatre, this is a story on more than one level. At its most basic it is the retelling of a classic science fiction story, but strip away a few layers and many of the institutions that have shaped our society to date are re-examined and held up in the future light to come to their own futilities.
Verdict: The evening flies by
Most drama plays with time to some extent, but two shows at Edinburgh do so in particular. H.G. Wells’s much-loved 1895 yarn about a time-travelling Victorian scientist — a Dr Who for grown-ups — is dramatised in a one-man fringe show, the story being told with terrific commitment by Stephen Cunningham.
The hero beams himself millennia into the future and finds a Thames Valley where innocents are bullied by grunting, cannibal subterraneans. Not much different from today!
Using little more than lighting and some Tardis-type noises, this production grips the imagination. Wells brilliantly envisaged the decline of intellectualism, the rotting of libraries, the dangers of moral complacency and even climate change. Ideas spit off the narrative like sparks from a welder’s torch.
A disturbing journey into the unknown
HG Wells' The Time Machine was a pioneering piece of science fiction and has inspired countless works in the same vein since its publication over a hundred years ago.
However, many of those imitators have relied on big budgets and elaborate sets to create the impression of futuristic worlds so different to our own. This stage adaptation takes a different approach. Relying on a sparsely dressed stage and the talent of Stephen Cunningham (playing the unnamed time traveler), this production allows the imagination displayed by Wells to shine through.
When the time traveller moves 800,000 years into the future, it is Cunningham's convincing sense of wonder and awe that take us with him. His performance is rich in a manic intensity that can't help but call to mind the BBC's Tardis-dwelling, time-traveling hero.
Cunningham's wide eyes and rapid delivery are essential for the audience to become invested in the strange world that he finds himself in. As he moves further into the future and towards the death of the planet, his dread reaches a frenetic level that expertly hammers home the horror of our inevitable downfall.
Screaming his way onstage as he bursts through time, Stephen Cunningham's evocation of H G Wells's time-traveling pioneer scientist lets us know instantly that this will be a high octane, frenetic and deeply intense performance.
Alternating between laughing and clutching at his stomach in pain, we are regaled with the story of his adventures into the future; regaling us with glee and horror about the future of mankind and the origin of his anachronisticly modern trainers.
In the classic style, which Dyad Productions has staked out as its own, The Time Machine is a captivating and clever adaptation of the original source material, written to be naturally close to the original yet organically branching out in small ways to make the piece more immediately palatable to a modern theatre audience.
It's clear that Elton Townend Jones and Rebecca Vaughan have plundered the original material mercilessly yet judiciously to stage a brilliant retelling of the cautionary story. Indeed it's admirable of Dyad to forsake the temptations to sanitise or alter the plot in ways similar to other adaptations and leave the story as top-heavy as it always was, with the story of the Eloi and Morlocks serving as the meat of the early plot, moreover to give the story a resolution that, frankly, is more satisfying than the original's ambiguously open framing device.
Cunningham gives an energetic performance filled with manic energy. His scientist is an obsessive, borderline manic and teetering ever on the edge of being unhinged. His disregard for preparation and his own safety constantly explained in a wild-eyed and excitable intensity that is consistent over a 90-minute performance.
It's clear he's not supposed to be a classical hero or even wholly empathetic, more of a aspergian supergenius, liberally sprinkled with clear yet subtle allusions towards Dr Who, a theme also echoed in the TARDIS-like sounds of the Time Machine's operation.
The other great aspect of this play is the staging, a masterstroke in simplicity, with a bare handful of props and ingenious use of simple lighting changes and a few sound effects to evoke a scenario told through a performance that defies its own expositional nature to create a play that captivates and amazes.
Stephen Cunningham takes us on an amazing journey into the future as the world ends in HG Well's Time Machine. We travel forward 8000 years as human life is extinguished by the growing sun and he experiences the only creatures that can exist in the harsh environment. It is a nightmarish cautionary tale exhausting to watch and I am sure to perform.
He transports us from Victorian London using his adapted pocket watch as he transcends the years and his excitement at his invention slowly evaporates into fear and despair. He conveys the journey with few props and a powerful physical performance, drawing the audience in at times as if explaining what he has seen to a Victorian audience.
The simple setting is brilliantly lit by Martin Tucker and creates the moments of transcending and the dark shadows of the future world. His simple costume by Kate Flanaghan immediate sets the period and poses the question, "why trainers" hinting at a character out of his time.
Written and directed by Elton Townend Jones , the play successfully uses HG Wells' novel as a spring board to send us into the future with a stark warning of what is to come in a theatrical treat.
Built in the mid nineteenth century, the building formerly known as Lady Glenlorchy’s Parish Church still stands in Edinburgh’s Old Town and will likely stand for a hundred years more; currently the venue known as Assembly Roxy, that state cannot be regarded as permanent and unchanging, a truth emphasised at the present time in its Gothic wooden loft of black drape, brick arches and veiled stage which hosts a time machine.
Materialising on stage in a pair of comfortable trainers, anachronistic against the tweed of his costume, the traveller wolfs down his breakfast of cheese and a glass of water which he laid out only hours before when he left at ten o’clock that morning, eight days having passed since that moment which he recounts breathlessly as though experiencing the wonder and horror of every moment for the first time.
The building already standing long before H G Wells’ debut novel was published in 1895, as one of the first “time travel” novels – in fact one of the first major science fiction novels, that term not even to be coined until several decades later – in terms of structure and narrative it is perhaps uncomplicated when considered alongside the more recent Predestination or Arrival, yet the first person monologue admirably facilitates adaptation to the stage for a single performer.
This is not to diminish the skill and talent of either writer/director Elton Townend Jones or performer Stephen Cunningham for it is difficult enough to hold the attention of an audience through a one hour stand up show and this is an intense ninety minute dramatic monologue unleavened by comedy or any other notion of relief with only Cunningham’s presence and delivery of the material on which to build a collapsing world.
Fortunately Wells was a brilliant descriptive writer and with only minor necessary adjustments it is that prose which Jones has preserved requiring only that it be recited with fervour by Cunningham whose animated exultations and fevered performance channel the philosophy and dreams of Wells but also his justifiable and informed fears.
Displaced in time into the era of the “golden men of the future,” the Eloi, and the “bleached subterranean obscenity” of the Morlock, its true strangeness is only slowly revealed to the traveller as his mind comes to comprehend the vast distance that separates him from home and the ghastly symbiosis which exists between the last surviving races of “the great abandoned tomorrow.”
A socialist whose family were not affluent, Wells’ thinking of the social structure of his own life led him to extrapolate that divide further to a world where “the haves above ground enjoy a life of pleasure, the have nots adapted to conditions below,” and as the traveller comes to realise there is a terrible reason the Eloi are afraid of the dark and as the lights go out in the chamber, the audience are as rightly frightened as he.
It’s a minimal production, most obviously in the time machine itself which is a pocket watch rather than the more ostentatious design of George Pal’s 1960 film version, but through simple yet effective lighting and Cunningham’s conviction the space is transformed from open fields to oppressive forests, from a decaying museum to the underground killing chambers of the Morlock.
The machine reduced to “something so small, so fragile,” it makes it easier for the traveller to lose his link to home and the subsequent moment of panicked desperation driven by ultimate isolation is one which Wells used often with his male protagonists, in The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon to name but two, displaying an honest humanity in his writing which many later authors of the golden age ignored in their rush to the stars.
With well over a century passed since it was conceived, The Time Machine arrives ready to be appreciated by a modern audience who will marvel at how relevant it remains in its observation of the future and the warnings given long ago that the transcendence to futurity is not without danger, the sunset of man expressed eloquently by Jones and Cunningham yet with glints of hope remaining flickering on the horizon.
The classic science fiction novella by H.G Wells is brought to the Fringe by Dyad Productions. A story of time travel, the tale also allowed Wells to explore via fiction his own concerns for the decline and degeneration of society. Wells was a socialist and had long held worries of the impact of unfettered industrialisation borne on the wings of capitalism. Writer Elton Townend-Jones takes the original novel and imbues it with questions that still concern us today.
A modern, curious, Victorian explorer warps into an historical relic enabling profound realisation that the descent of Mankind towards apocalypse is based on seeds planted into the “Now” of wretched contentment. The future becomes a desolate, wasted opportunity. Visionary fiction such as William Wharton’s Franky Furbo, which painted a future in which mankind had declined into backward sub-servient apes, and self-consciousness had been achieved by waistcoat-wearing foxes was always preceded by this stark, powerful and shocking novella by H.G. Wells. Wells’s portrayal of a diverging development of mankind into a new Eden populated by innocent simpletons and a cannibalistic offshoot that preyed upon the former, has been echoed in visionaries such as Rudolf Steiner who predicted in the first part of the twentieth century that humanity would split also into two – a race of coldly intellectual, spider-like beings plugged into technology, and a race of spiritual, gentler, nature-friendly humans, leading to a war of all against all. Also we have dystopian novels such as Seven Days in New Crete by Robert Graves. All of these literary and esoterically inspired versions of the future were, surely influenced and even inspired by Wells (and perhaps his contemporary Vladimir Soloviev). Dark visions indeeds, but what makes Elton Townend-Jones’s’ theatrical rendition so pertinent and skillful is the simple polemic that the seeds we plant now have their outcome far, far ahead, and in this case, we dissolve into impotence as the natural course of the universe, creates the End Times. No vision here of Michael Moorcock’s Technology-rescued human Dancers at the End of Time for which even the apocalpyse becomes a tool for decadent play. Here the future is a descent, a part-mimic of Hell. Our protagonist comes to full realisation that humanity’s decadent social evolution becomes so akin to Christopher Fry’s Sleep of Prisoners. “So many thousand years to wake... But will you wake, for pity’s sake?”
This is important work on the Fringe, work that needs and deserves to be seen. This is no Victorian relic of literature. This is still relevant visionary fiction. At Brighton Fringe 2017, The Foundry Group brought us the plays of W.S Gilbert (he of Gilbert and Sullivan). Yes, plays, not just light operettas! Gilbert’s plays were extremely well written, often uncomfortable and dealt with issues that are still relevant today and he is probably an unconscious influence on many writers through the 20th and first part of the 21st Century. One of them paints a gritty picture of life on Death Row. Another is incredibly prescient about memory in society and the rise of superficial social media. Wells’s classic novella is treated with tender respect by the writer here but he also adds a modernistic integration without ever doing that for its own sake. What we see of the future is a result of natural evolution but conclusions are also drawn that are extremely relevant to the state of the world today. The steps we take now, the decisions we make (or avoid making) set the path, not only of humanity, but also become a player in the process of evolution itself. This is all done via a piece of direct, solo theatre, rooted in real-time, commentary-based storytelling, delivered with an immediacy, an urgency that goes with that style. It becomes easy to suspend our disbelief and co-experience this emerging tale and its accompanying consequences and realisation.
I’m glad productions like this play at the Fringe. This is an important play, better treated here than in the film versions that tended to focus almost exclusively on the ‘adventure story’ element. Here, via theatre, we have both an engaging story and something deeper and more satisfying as a result.
Like a lot of theatre today still based on scripted narrative, you will need to meet this performance with your attention, contribute your active imagination to help create the world that is not simply offered to you on a plate of spell-it-out writing, special effects and attention-grabbing tricks. If you’re not a fan of science fiction, you need not be put off seeing this. This is a story of consequences – both social and natural. Here we have a theatrical presentation of your future.
This is direct theatre, offered story-style. Yes there are sound effects and some smart lighting choices. Yet mostly it is left to all of us to co-construct an important and dangerous tale. At one level it is sci-fi escapism and at another level it is a strong warning to humanity, suggesting a future that partly lies in our hands.
It is staged with all the hallmark strength of a Dyad show – strong, well-researched writing, fine acting, and a production that is designed with bare simplicity, yet which always feel more than enough to draw us in and immerse us in the content.
As a real time narrated piece we have to imagine the Morlocks and the Eloi through both spoken word and physical reaction. They are brought into believable being by the actor in the space under well-designed lighting and sound effects.
It’s a vital piece of solo theatre at the Fringe, a bold and important rendering of a classic – some of that adaptation being subtle, paying rightful homage to the original “Score” – the novella penned by H.G.Wells. A modern flavour is here and there added in yet rooted in a classic of British visionary fiction with a human-centred explanation of the future.
The time machine itself is cleverly realised (I won’t spoil the simple inventiveness of how it is done), staging and lighting are both economic and more than enough to capture the process of time travel and at the heart of that is a deeper notion that time travel is possible when we can imbue mechanism with transcendent process. We go beyond three dimensions and are immersed into a view of live-able reality that Dante referred to when his Virgil described the afterlife as a region where “time becomes space. It’s a realm in which the physically conscious human can still exist and act. Yet, ultimately do the laws of physical reality still impose an end upon us because we lazily decline and fall victim to its inevitable laws?
I found all of this thrilling. The show kept my interest and attention throughout and, like all excellent theatre, I felt I had been taken on a journey, and was different at the end of it. I’m left wondering and frowning at our collective future. Which path or paths will we take, and for what end? The Time Machine is intelligent, disruptive and something important to see and reflect upon. It draws upon skilled theatre=craft, powerful storytelling underpinned by excellent acting, all founded upon a textured and finely crafted script. It’s a bold, confident piece of theatre that brings to the stage a novel that I’m delighted has arrived at the Fringe in a refreshed and innovatively adapted form.
Immersive this certainly is, with the fourth wall also shimmering uncertainly as we are told a story in the present tense; we accept an unspoken invitation to dive in, to become witness-collaborators in the greatest unfolding story ever told – the future of us all – a future that emerges in the form of the consequences of our actions today combined with the inevitable destruction of the Earth, predicted by science as the Sun going nova and burning us all up. Do we die too willingly into that future by sowing the seeds in the present?The Time Machine as novella by Wells always succeeded in exploring and exposing that scenario. The Time Machine by Townend-Jones carries us along with the time traveller and the journey is a theatrical success.
I thoroughly recommend this vital piece of theatre. The standing ovation confirmed the tour-de-force quality of the performance.
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