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A CurtainUp London London Review
Mr Burns

"A fine line between tantalisation and torture.". — Jenny
Mr Burns
Cast in Act Two (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
It is a curiosity, this play from Anne Washburn taking one episode of The Simpsons and turning it into a kind of mythology in a society that no longer has electricity. Although I cannot count myself an avid Simpsons' fan, I have been in the house when my son has watched with enthusiasm and I have been impressed by the show which parodies so many musical hits, so at least I know who Mr Burns and Sideshow Bob are. I think your enjoyment of this show will be in direct proportion to your fascination with Matt Groening's cartoon series but that is not to say that the play will be a complete mystery to everyone else.

The first act finds us all in the dark, literally as well as metaphorically, as gathered in the forest, lit only by a camp fire are a small group of survivors. To take their mind off the recent tragedy that has wiped out most of the population, they are recalling, blow by blow, an episode of The Simpsons which starts with a death threat letter to Bart Simpson, with the letters seemingly written in blood. It is a wonderfully animated discussion as they recall details of, and correct each other's recall of The Simpsons' episode of Cape Feare, itself a spoof of the Cape Fear films, the latest by Martin Scorsese with Robert De Niro.

When Gibson (Demetri Goritsas) arrives to join the group, they are at first suspicious of him but in a moment of high poignancy they share their lists of known survivors by reading out the names and ages of those dear to them and missing. So this first act has both humour and tragedy as they exercise their memories of an episode of The Simpsons and think about the missing.

Seven years later, this group has formed a community, joined by a few others. They are working on the dramatization of the Cape Feare episode for public consumption having acquired the rights and are defending them from rival theatre group "Richards". This group has the best television advertisements, drawn from food and drink fantasy territory as the mention of a Diet Coke induces longing and nostalgia. In the Cape Feare episode Homer and family are in a witness protection programme and they are trying to get Homer to respond to his new assumed ID. This middle scene is brimfull of show business jokes but Gibson goes into meltdown about the after effects in terms of brain damage, of whatever it was that shut down the National Grid and blew the Nuclear Power stations.

Seventy five years later, in Act Three, gives us the full production of Cape Feare "the opera" according to the Simpsons. Jenna Russell in a golden crown to approximate Bart Simpson's head, sings her way through the final challenge to the Simpson family in the form of arch enemy Mr Burns (Michael Shaeffer), Homer's erstwhile employer in Springfield. As each member of the golden limbed Simpson family is extinguished, it starts to look as if Mr Burns will win the evening. The ethereal chorus is also golden skinned. Is this the effect of radioactive emissions, the inheritance of the original power outage?

On a serious note , in this context we trace the roots of mythology and religion, as stories become a magical world that bind us together.

Do read Elyse Sommer's review of Mr Burns in New York, here. I can see from the photograph that the London production has been redesigned with costumes, mere nods to the cartoon and in the final act, a burnished metallic, grand operatic theme.

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Mr Burns
Written by Anne Washburn
Composers: Orlando Gough and Michael Henry
Directed by Robert Icke

Starring: Jenna Russell, Wunmi Mosaku, Demetri Goritsas, Michael Shaeffer
With: Adrian der Gregorian, Adey Grummet, Justine Mitchell, Annabel Scholey, Fiona Digney, Michael Henry
Designed by Tom Scutt
Choreography by Ann Yee
Musical Directors: Orlando Gough and Michael Henry
Sound Design: Tom Gibbons
Lighting Design: Philip Gladwell
Running time: Two hours 55 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 26th July 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th June 2014 performance at The Almeida Theatre, Upper Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: Angel, Islington)
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