The Time Machine: A Comedy
Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Original Theatre in association with New Wolsey Theatre
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
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The idea of taking a Victorian or Edwardian serious classic novel and turning into a frenetic comedy by using a small cast to create multiple characters and locations has become rather a theatrical cliché, but Steven Canny and John Nicholson of Peepolykus can certainly claim to be early adopters, if not originators, of this concept.
During lockdown, they turned their attention to H G Wells's early science fiction novel The Time Machine from 1895 for Original Theatre, the company that revived their 15-year-old adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and brought it to the Octagon in 2021. Often with this type of production, as with many pantomimes, which story is used is largely irrelevant as it takes second place to the knockabout comedy and banter between the performers as things go wrong and they argue over who is to blame. This show does contain all of that, but adds a level of sophistication that the earlier show lacked that relates directly to the novel on which it is based.
This is very much a show of two distinct halves. It begins predictably with the three performers—Dave Hearn, a founding member of Mischief Theatre, as Dave Wells, the great, great grandson of the author, playing the unnamed protagonist with Amy Revelle as his fiancée and Michael Dylan as his friend—in a Victorian drawing room as the host explains to his disbelieving companions how he has conquered time travel. There are the usual overblown performances and things going wrong, but these do become relevant later.
As this falls apart, they re-enact for us the time when they decided to abandon their production of The Importance of Being Earnest in favour of the Wells story, and then explain the various paradoxes associated with time travel—the grandfather paradox in the style of Eastenders and the Hitler paradox as the Muppets. The traveller jumps forward in time to meet one of the Eloi and battle a Morlock, but the first half ends with a tragic event and Dave's claim that he has genuinely travelled in time as his great, great grandfather's book was not a work of fiction and the machine he left behind actually works.
While the first half is fairly predictable if often amusing, it gets much more interesting after the interval, when Amy and Michael start the play again, not knowing we've already seen act I. Dave tries to convince the others that he has travelled through time by predicting what they are going to say and do next, as he has lived through this moment, Groundhog Day-like, many times already. The aim is to prevent the tragic event from happening by somehow overcoming the timeline protection paradox with the aid of various people from the audience.
But will they prevent the terrible event from happening, and will Amy manage to crowbar another Cher song into the show?
There are fully committed performances and improvised audience interaction from all three of the cast (plus a brief but important appearance from Noah Marullo) and director Orla O'Loughlin keeps them in check. While I came out for the interval thinking this was a decent version of something I'd seen lots of times before, by the end it had grabbed my attention and turned some of the smiles into belly laughs.
It may not be as profound as Wells's original work, but it's very entertaining and just occasionally might make you think a little.
Reviewer: David Chadderton