Theatre review: Mr Burns at the Almeida

The cast in Mr Burns. Picture credit: Manuel Harlan

The cast in Mr Burns. Picture credit: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

As a play based around the narrative of a Simpsons episode, Mr Burns certainly furthers the Almeida’s growing reputation for innovative, youthful theatre. Yet while there is much to admire about its layered, thoughtful ideology, it often struggles under the weight of its own ambition.

The script by Californian Anne Washburn presents three distinct acts. The first establishes the crux of the story: a band of survivors huddled round a campfire, trying to retell the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons from memory to distract from the reality of a nuclear apocalypse which has decimated many of the people they love.

With each act, we see this world skip forward over the years and witness the intriguing evolution of Cape Feare’s retelling. Much like an ancient folk story, this last bastion of pop culture transcends from being a simple means of entertainment to a way of making money (via a stage show) until eventually it becomes a form of high, spiritualised art.

The play’s strength comes in two forms. The first is in how it highlights the sheer power of storytelling; at a time when arts funding across the country is at an all-time low, there’s a comfort in being skilfully reminded of its ability to not just colour, but inform the very essence of human existence.


The second is in its characterisation, which over the first two acts is tightly established despite much of the action involving the survivors pretending to be Homer or Sideshow Bob. Demetri Goritsas as Gibson is empathetically emotive in the rare moments his character steps away to consider the horrifying reality of their situation. There is also a humorous delight in seeing Michael Shaeffer’s tough guy Sam submit to the troupe’s productions and eventually preening through a camp re-enactment of a Sheila’s Wheels-esque commercial.

The set, like the story, evolves from the humbleness of a dimly visible campfire to a vibrant, operatic enivronment assisted with colourful tribal costumes and tropical music. But frustratingly, just as the characters start to draw you in, the momentum is halted by the third act – a surrealist musical extravaganza which lacks the nuance of what’s gone before.

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There is plenty to enjoy here – particularly, but not exclusively, for Simpsons fans – and many of the poignant themes Washburn draws upon will provide food for thought. For many, though, its stunted narrative will leave you hungry for closure.

Rating: Three stars

Until July 26.