New Diorama Theatre – until 9 February 2019
Reviewed by Antonia Hebbert
Soon after 8pm on Sunday October 30th, 1938, Americans tuning into the Columbia Broadcasting radio network were startled to hear of a strange object landing at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. A panicky reporter described aliens emerging from it, and then the line went ominously dead.
What they were hearing was a live broadcast of Orson Welles’s play The War of the Worlds. Updating the novel by H.G. Wells, it reports a Martian invasion as breaking news, and became famous because it caused mass panic among listeners… or did it? The boring reality is that not many people thought Martians had invaded. It’s just such an entertaining idea that it developed a life of its own.
This tangle of fact and fiction-making is the starting point for Rhum and Clay Theatre Company’s exploration of fake news, written by Isley Lynn and developed, we are told, by the whole creative team. Matthew Wells and Julian Spooner direct and also act, together with Mona Goodwin and Amalia Vitale. The cast of four take us straight back to the original broadcast, with minimal props (a radio, a microphone, and pipes, as smoked by Orson Welles). They then take on multiple roles as the story moves to the present day, with a would-be influencer going to Grover’s Mill to make a podcast about a child abandoned in the alleged panic. She finds a town where fact and fiction are blurred, and while claiming to seek the truth, she tells lies to trick her way into a family that isn’t as straightforward as it seems. All the cast are fun to watch, and Amalia Vitale has an especially lovely flexible voice for this kind of shapeshifting show. Fake news, it seems, isn’t just something that’s imposed on people – we reinforce and believe the stories we want to hear. A cool grey mesh-like backdrop (Bethany Wells) and hazy lighting add to the sense of blurred boundaries.
This is a play about ideas rather than an emotionally engaging piece – somehow it was difficult to care very much about any of the characters. There is a sort of reconciliation at the end, but one of the characters is virtually a stranger to us, so it doesn’t have much impact. A clever, energetic and entertaining show nonetheless.