I know I used to be a radio drama producer, but surely everyone has heard of Orson Welles’ radio version of War of the Worlds? It practically brought the US to a halt in 1938. A straw poll of the ladies sitting in front of me on the train reveals they had to listen to it in primary school (!) and it scared the s**t out of them. I’m not surprised.
The story was told as a series of news broadcasts from reporters in the field. People who tuned in after it started thought that a Martian invasion was under way.
As Welles later said: “Six minutes after we’d gone on the air, the switchboards in radio stations right across the country were lighting up like Christmas trees. Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis there was wailing in the street and the rending of garments.”
Rhum and Clay Theatre Company uses the Welles story as a jumping-off point for a piece about fake news, conspiracy theorists and the nature of truth. It’s engaging and not terrifying at all. Well, except for when my ringtone came through the PA and I completely panicked. It turns out it was in the show. Phew.
The morality is complex. A young podcaster comes across the story of one family’s reaction to The War of the Worlds broadcast. Her producer, in search of a compelling story, sends her to the family home in the mid-West of the US where, to gain their confidence, she pretends to be a relative. Meanwhile, the son of the house is upstairs doing something on his computer. His mother hopes it’s porn. No spoilers, but it entangles from there.
The writing and the performance style are inextricably entwined. The show takes place in a bare space, which begins as a radio studio and then becomes everything else. The four actors all play Orson Welles, with character pipe, at the same time. They move around the space in a highly choreographed manner, making both character and emotion physical. That sounds a bit pretentious, but it really is what they’re doing. I think.
The credit is ‘written with Isley Lynn’, so presumably a company-devised piece. The cast comprises Gina Isaac and Jess Mabel Jones and includes movement director Matt Wells and co-director Julian Spooner. Hamish MacDougall also co-directs. The show was commissioned by New Diorama Theatre, an innovative company with a small theatre near Euston.
This isn’t as high-tech as a 1927 show (a theatre company). But the tech used is deftly handled. The sound design, which makes good use of period pop and drones (those deep notes you feel rather than hear, which theatre has pinched from the movies) is by Benjamin Grant.
However, what was not just me was the palpable pleasure of being back in a theatre with quite a lot of other people, some of whom were wearing masks, others not. It didn’t seem as socially distanced as Glee and Me at the Royal Exchange, but I felt perfectly safe, and chatted to complete strangers who felt the same. And it was two hours including an interval.
Failing a resurgence, we may be getting back to normal.
Main images: TWOTW Prod Image (2021 cast – Julian Spooner, Jess Mabel Jones). Photographer: Luke Forsythe.