THE MACHINE STOPS - review by Richard Johnston
Imagine a post-apocalyptic future where people live in tiny, isolated chambers far underground. We are nurtured in every way by an omnipresent, mechanical entity of our own creation and it doesn’t want us to leave; not now it has us right where it wants us.
Now imagine creating this classic example of sci-fi literature in 1909, when the social norm was a sombre succession of high teas and ululations of How do you Do?; when digital technology was unheard of. This is why E. M. Forster’s short novel The Machine Stops was a groundbreaking view of a potential future for humanity that has most likely inspired other sci-fi writers ever since.
This theatrical production of The Machine Stops has been masterfully adapted for stage by Neil Duffield and I was thoroughly impressed with all aspects of the production.
The performers were outstanding. It was a rounded showcase of physical agility and strength as much as quality acting. The play’s character of conformism and dependence on The Machine was Vashti played thoughtfully by Caroline Gruber. We are frustrated by her ignorance and dependence on The Machine but we end up willing her to attain her freedom. Vashti’s biological Son Kuno, played passionately by Karl Queensborough; is housed on the other side of the world in a chamber identical to Vashti’s and she has not met him in person since his birth. Kuno is a cheeky and irreverent character initially but this non conformist streak quickly evolves him into an anarchic revolutionary against the system, drawing strength from the human condition. We will him to succeed in his exploits and I particularly enjoyed Queensborough’s performed narrative of his journey to the Earth’s surface.
Performing in a constant cohesion with each other and the rest of the cast were Maria Gray Machine/Airship attendant and Gareth Aled Machine/Airship Passenger. Gray and Aled performed brilliantly in symbiotic harmony with each other as avatars/mechanical moving parts of The Machine. Their cleverly directed acrobatics around the set were fluid and required great fitness; which in itself was also a tribute to Movement Director Philippa Vafadari and Director Juliet Forster. I also really enjoyed The Airship Passenger played by Aled who I think could be interesting enough for a potential spin off, original piece based around his journey.
The set was great as it offered an imposing metal framework to create the various futuristic rooms. It also helped the audience sympathise with the claustrophobia of life in the underworld dwellings and it allowed the performers a strong framework for their energetic movements around the set. The lighting, designed by Tom Smith and the sound/music, composed by John Foxx and Benge were effective at creating suspense, atmosphere and mechanical processes. Everyone loves a bit of abstract Synth to give that retro Sci-fi film effect!
The only possible problem that I could see with the production was that those audience members sitting to stage left may have their vision of certain events obscured by the framework set.
I would thoroughly recommend seeing this play; the writing, production and performance were fantastic; and its a world premiere! Even if you are not a Sci-fi fan there is much to enjoy from the performance as the poignant struggle of humanity to regain its unique, emotional identity and physical freedom is one we can all identify with.
It begs the question: are we, today, really so far from the super technological dependency and environmental destruction portrayed in The Machine Stops?
Venue: York Theatre Royal - Studio Run: Friday 13th May – Saturday 4th June Time: 7:30pm (Matinees 2:30pm Thursdays and 2pm Saturdays) Running Time: 90 mins. Tickets: £16-£14 www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk