North London's Almeida Theatre has recently been on a serious roll, with West End transfers for Ghosts and 1984 and a forthcoming one for King Charles III. It all promptly unravels now, however, with the seriously baffling British premiere of Ann Washburn's Mr Burns. First seen off-Broadway last year, Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it "downright brilliant" and asked, "When was the last time you met a new play that was so smart it made your head spin?"
Mine was spinning, true, but it felt in the wrong direction entirely, with frustration and bewilderment rather than any sense of pleasure in this playful but pointless theatrical riff on a post-apocalyptic America.
Washburn at least forewarns the audience that this may be less than conventional: she subtitles it "a post-electric play." And certainly the first of the three acts suffers from a literal lack of electricity: it is played out in near-darkness to the flickering of a single onstage fireside flame. An intriguing theatrical flame is instead offered as a huddled group of survivors from some kind of apocalypse gather around it and pass the time by replaying a famous episode from The Simpsons.
Storytelling around a fire is the oldest form of theatre, after all, and perhaps it will remain a consolation even in the darkest times, in every sense. But that's pretty much all that happens across all three acts: in the middle act, they've now become a performance troupe, rehearsing that episode to perform to other survivors. And in the final act, they stage it as a kind of bizarre Wagnerian operetta.
By now I'd lost the will to live myself, and wanted to gouge my own eyes out. I admired the skill and palpable commitment that the cast brought to it, but couldn't share their engagement at all. A friend, totally unfamiliar with The Simpsons, told me he was entirely lost. I, at least, knew the characters, but it didn't really help.
Younger audiences than me may appreciate the in-jokes better (though the key episode replayed from The Simpsons is some 20 years old, so they'd better not be too young). But as playful as this all feels, it's also curiously pointless. It's impossible to care about the characters' plight. This excruciating exercise in experimental theatre will no doubt have its fans. But I'm afraid that I'm not one of them, for all the admiration I have for the cast in persevering in the face of extreme perversity.
"All in all, it feels like less than the Sum of its Barts. Makes you think, yes, but makes you feel? Eat my shorts!"
Dominic Cavendish for Daily Telegraph
"In the end, it feels like a cult show; one that will primarily appeal to Simpsons addicts. But, while it raises valid questions about what will endure after a future disaster, I find it a melancholy thought that art, architecture and literature may perish in the collective memory but a popular TV show will be the last relic of western civilisation."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"If you’re a fan of The Simpsons with an appetite for risk-taking theatre, its strangeness will be irresistible. Others are likely to find it impenetrable and pretentious."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard