The Time Machine (The London Library)

The Time Machine (The London Library, until April 5th)

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Not only do you get the chance to immerse yourselves in the dystopian fiction of H.G.Wells in Creation Theatre’s innovative new version of The Time Machine  – you also get to explore parts of the amazing London Library, which boasts around a million books on multi-levels.

It’s an ideal setting for a work such as this: Wells joined the Library in 1896 and remained a member for the rest of his life. Is that his ghost just behind the distant bookshelf lapping up the spirited retelling of one of his most famous works? Or is it one of the hungry, snarling Morlocks waiting to pounce?

Just like the Victorian novella which inspired this work of theatre, the London Library in St James’s Square has a deceptive outer appearance. Set foot inside the door and you find unexpected treasures which allow you to visit numerous times and places; glance one way and there’s historic whodunits, another and there are collections of every edition of  Times newspaper ever published.

If that sounds a bit like Doctor Who and the TARDIS there’s definitely a Time Lord vibe to the experience. An anonymous time traveller (in our case it was energetic and earnest Rhodri Lewis), dressed in a gold coat with an air of steampunk scientist, guides the group (about 15-20 at a time) from room to room. He clutches a briefcase with a year written on it in chalk and we’re told this is the Time Machine itself, as we journey through messy temporal reality and told about the multiverse theory.

There are times when you feel as though this might just be what it’s like to be one of the Doctor’s travelling companions, as baffling explanations come thick and fast and scientific facts and theories are thrown out as though we should understand every last molecule.

We are whisked to alternate timelines where Wells wrote The Origin of the Species and Darwin wrote The Time Machine, where silent film comedy actor Oliver Hardy is a physicist and where Jean-Paul Gaultier is creating electronic music in Birmingham.

Along the way we meet an affable human computer (Graeme Rose, supposedly the result of mixing elements of Jumbo Jet technology with a children’s Speak and Spell machine), the Director of the Department for Research, Scepticism and Innovation (Sarah Edwardson), who suggests that world civilisation is about to fall unless you’re living in New Zealand, and a chat show host eager to get to the truth about time travel (Funlola Olufunwa).

The adaptation of the book by Jonathan Holloway is in fact more of a deconstruction of the original story with major plot points rewritten to suit the present age (although we are told at the end that the piece was written in October 2019, so any similarity to world events today was entirely conjectural) and to make the fullest use of the magical and mysterious setting.

The fun piece also draws on research by the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, which lends the entertainment a serious dimension that also informs and educates.

Director Natasha Rickman ensures the audience is involved as it can be and is not constantly being subjected to scientific and ethical lecturing, while always keeping the heart of the book’s themes – such as working classes being buried underground, the relationship between science and society, the imbalance of wealth and poverty, and socialist principles – in sight.

A thrilling ambience is also provided by Ryan Dawson Laight’s set and costume design, Ashley Bale’s lighting and Matt Eaton’s sound, all making good use of what is already in place and creating shadows, sounds to unsettle the nervous and a sense of purpose.

There’s a genuine sense of escapism in this promenade piece, yet pointed references remind us of the world outside in the 21st Century. Questions are asked about how we stop the world from dying as a result of climate change and we learn of a SARS pandemic taken into the past and future by wealthy time travelling daytrippers. One press cutting on a noticeboard (there are loads of nice little touches to spot) is a report about a time traveller from 2030 telling everyone the eventual outcome of Brexit.

Some of the evening is undoubtedly heavy-going and anyone less than enthusiastic about science might just struggle with longer explanations. But when a show suggests that time travel was invented in the basement of the Manhattan nightclub Studio 54 in its heyday and that time journeys even cause the colour of socks to change, then we know we are in for pure entertainment as well as a degree of enlightenment.

David Guest

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