War of the Worlds: way up North

Production shot from War of the Worlds

I’m going to review this play a little differently to most of my reviews. Northern Stage’s War of the Worlds already has enough glowing reviews on the pile, and besides, the two-week sold out run says more than any review ever will. What interests me is that this was part of Northern Stage’s NORTH scheme. If you’ve not heard of this, you can safely ignore most of this review and enjoy the play for what it is, but if you want ot read on, this needs a bit of explaining. NORTH has been running since 2013, and each year they take on a group on aspiring actors and give them, amongst other things, a public production. They generally go to form their own groups afterwards, the most successful one being the inaugural year which is now the hugely-respected Letter Room.

The scheme has varied from year to year though, not least in what kind of production they do. Usually the NORTH members devise their own play, but in 2015 the intake instead played the ensemble roles in mainstream production Cyrano de Bergerac – and not everyone was happy about that. A complaint I’ve heard off the record (not from anyone in NORTH 2015, I should add) is that by getting this instead of a devised production, they never get a chance to show their own creativity. A secondary complaint was that they got caught up in a concept that didn’t work, but lack of their own production was the main thing. So now, fast forward to 2018, and once again, a NORTH ensemble take the stage in someone else’s production. This time they play the leads in a Stage 3 production rather than ensemble on the main stage, but once again, the success of a production is in someone else’s hands.

Luckily for them, that someone is Laura Lindow, who has penned a series of successful productions, the most recent one being the November Club’s Beyond the End of the Road. Together with director Elayce Ismail, it turns out, they couldn’t have wished for safer hands to be in.

Firstly, Lindow and Ismail resist the temptation to force a “concept” on the the adaptation of H. G. Wells’s famous story. The play is transplanted to the north-east, so out goes Horsell Common and in comes the Martian landing on a Northumberland beach. Other than that, however, this stays about as faithful to the book as an hour-long adaptation can be. One thing that is brought out particularly well is the characters, in particularly central character Philip Ridley. For the story to make sense, we have to understand why Philip Ridley didn’t do the sensible thing and flee – and is explained, very well with a portrayal of a man slow to realise how dire the situation is, convincing himself there’s no harm in going back to take a look before he can remain in denial any longer.

The bigger challenge is telling the rest of the story. There’s only so much of a story you can narrate on stage before the audience gets lost. Lindow and Ismail mitigate this by making use of props to represent anything they can, and the sound effects of the Martians approaching and firing their heat rays was suitably scary. These are standard techniques in theatre, but when it’s choreographed this tightly you can’t complain. However, this still meant large chunks of the story had to be relied on with narration alone more than was ideal. One device I’d have like to see, simply because the space would have suited it so well, was shadows on the wall, a bit like Lorne Campbell did for Get Carter. I’m sure they could have do a lot with shadows on the dreaded Martian Machines. Although it’s fair to say this was supposed to be a low-budget production that’s meant to do without these bells and whistles. There again, had this play been put in a  bigger space, they would easily have sold enough extra deats to have the budget for this. Really, there’s only one mistake Northern Stage made with War of the Worlds, and that was underestimating how popular this would be.

There’s no doubt this was a hit with audiences, and deservedly so. Is this a better or worse deal for NORTH 2018 than the usual devised production? Only they can answer that questions. But in terms of showcasing what this cast of four can do, there can be no doubt. I’ve heard so many people praising their acting, from flawless adapting to the endless set changes, to the memorable scene where our hero Ridley starts mistaking a nearby frog for the local victor, to even memorable off-stage transformation. It was a big responsibility for the writing and director when there’s so much at stake for the future of this cast of four, but they gave them what no needed. Ultimately, however, only the actors can take what they’ve got and make it into a great performance, and this couldn’t be a better start for them.

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