The War of the Worlds

Isley Lynn
Rhum and Clay Theatre Company
HOME Manchester

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Julian Spooner, Gina Isaac, Matt Wells, Jess Mabel Jones Credit: Jamie MacMillan
Jess Mabel Jones, Gina Isaac, Matt Wells, Julian Spooner Credit: Jamie MacMillan
Jess Mabel Jones, Gina Isaac, Julian Spooner, Matt Wells Credit: Luke Forsythe
Julian Spooner, Jess Mabel Jones Credit: Luke Forsythe
Gina Isaac, Julian Spooner, Matt Wells, Jess Mabel Jones Credit: Luke Forsythe

Despite the title, this is not a dramatisation of the 1898 novel by H G Wells. It follows the 1938 radio adaptation by Orson Welles in moving the Martian invasion from Surrey to Grover's Mill, New Jersey, but it isn't a stage version of this either. However, it uses the alleged panic caused by The Mercury Theatre on the Air's live broadcast as a way into a story about how people can be manipulated, deliberately or not, into believing the most unlikely things—a lesson from between the wars about a very up-to-date issue.

It begins in an old radio studio from where the Welles play is being broadcast as all four actors play the great man together, with pipe in hand, as well as the other actors in his company. Welles also turns to the audience from time to time to explain what was happening around the broadcast. But then, quite a way into the first act, the story jumps to London in 2016 between the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as a young podcaster (Jess Mabel Jones), trying to get into proper radio production, interviews a man whose recently deceased grandmother allegedly was abandoned by her family in America for a day when she was 13 in 1938 because they were convinced that the Martians were invading.

The interview isn't enough for the radio producer, so she takes off to New Jersey and finds the daughter of the grandmother's estranged brother (Gina Isaac), who doesn't believe the grandmother's version of events, or even the stories of the panic in 1938. However her husband (Matt Wells) believes all sorts of wild conspiracy theories, while her journalism college drop-out son (Julian Spooner) has a secret profitable sideline making up conspiracy theories and pushing them out to the Internet as he says it's what people want to read (I know there are people who do this as I once read an interview with one of them... oh, or maybe there aren't).

Her way of gaining access to the family wasn't exactly ethical and her original interviewee has withdrawn his consent, so she starts to have second thoughts about whether she should do the broadcast, while her producer tries to convince her that it's what people need to know: the Truth. Finally, we see a brief but terrifying moment of a modern TV news adaptation of the Wells story in the Welles mode as Sky News appears to bring reports of the end of civilisation.

It's quite a jumble of stories, references and styles, but somehow it works. If anything, I'd say it doesn't need as much of the Orson Welles parts as, while it sets up the themes and ideas behind the piece nicely, I found the story of the young reporter much more interesting, although the pace of it does flag a bit in the middle of the second half. But it's a clever way of looking at the very modern issues of conspiracy theories, manipulation of people's beliefs and the ethics of journalism through an event that may or may not have happened over 80 years ago, compelling told by a dedicated cast and tightly directed by Hamish McDougall and Julian Spooner.

Just as Jaws isn't a film about a shark, The War of the World in this form isn't a play about a Martian invasion, but it uses its sources to tell a modern tale in a way that Wells wouldn't recognise but I think Welles might admire.

Reviewer: David Chadderton