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Mr Burns, Almeida Theatre, review: 'Lacks speed and cheek of The Simpsons'


Anne Washburn's serio-comic off-Broadway smash is one of those works that prove to be far more stimulating as a concept than in the actual execution.  Subtitled “a post-electric play” and set in the not-too-distant future, it imagines that an unexplained nuclear catastrophe has left the US in technological meltdown.

As the dramatist has revealed, she had long been toying with the idea of pushing a popular TV sitcom beyond the apocalypse in order to speculate how, in a culture that has had to revert to oral traditions of story-telling, accounts of the show would develop and shift over time as a result of the fallibility of memory and the human need to make sense of the world through narrative. 

It's a droll and somewhat dismaying notion that the educated East Coast survivors in Washburn's play cling not to recollections of Shakespeare or the Bible (books – apart from note-pads and maps – are conspicuously and mysteriously absent from the proceedings) – but to The Simpsons. 

In the first act, huddled round a camp fire, a group of folk on the run from radiation are seen trying to piece together in pedantic detail one episode in particular.  Aptly, given the play's preoccupation with allusion and the processes of transmission, “Cape Feare”, in which a vengeful Sideshow Bob is released from prison and homicidally pursues Bart, is itself a spoof of the Scorsese remake of the original 1962 movie.

Anyone planning a visit to the UK premiere of the piece, directed by Robert Icke at the Almeida, should be warned of two things.  If you are unfamiliar with The Simpsons, you are liable to be in dark in more senses than one and if you are a fan, don't go expecting the play to have the cartoon's hilariously savvy speed and cheek with cultural references nor its refusal ever to labour a gag. 

Icke's game cast can't disguise the fact that Mr Burns (the play is named after the boss of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant) is audacious in theory and, to be sure, defiantly weird and singular and yet oddly plodding and ponderous in practice.

The best part, to my mind, is the genuinely amusing middle act set seven years later when the survivors have become an itinerant theatrical troupe putting on live re-runs of TV shows and in turf wars with rival companies over buying remembered lines. There's a mad collage of pop hits performed atop pink Cadillac constructed from cardboard boxes. A deep, insecure nostalgia for the old luxuries informs their ridiculously dedicated attempts to recreate commercials (“Shiraz makes a lot of people slightly nervous because they don't remember if they drank it or not”). 

I don't want to reveal too much abour he last act, which takes place seventy fives year on, except to say that, in the game of Chinese whispers, the Simpson's episode has now achieved the status of religious myth –  all gold masks and ritualized ceremony to the eerie dissonances of Orlando Gough's score.  The cast (with Jenna Russell superb as Bart) do the material proud. 

But by that stage you may feel that an idea that would have real bite as triptych of sharp pithy sketches has been protracted beyond endurance in this three-hour marathon.

To 26 July; 020 7359 4404