Spotlights presents: Mr Burns

Spotlights presents: Mr Burns

‘Sound trumpets! let our bloody colours wave! And either victory, or else a grave’ Act II, Scene II, Henry VI

Bristol Spotlights have chosen a divisive and adventurous play for their Loco Klub slot - Ann Washburn’s post-apocalyptic three-act piece revolves solely around the characters recalling and performing an episode of The Simpsons: Mr Burns.

This performance ekes out the most profound elements of the play; though on the surface bizarre, the desperate attempts characters try to detach themselves from the reality of the end of days speaks to deep existential fears pushed to one side within our psyches. Spotlights have utilised the unique space under Temple-Meads station, moving the audience to a new dark tunnel for every act and physically pointing to the temporal separation of each. As we walk deeper into the cold, eerie setting, the characters within the play progress further into their mythologising of pre-apocalyptic pop-culture.

What struck me as being most successful was the intimate involvement I felt, sat in a circle around a campfire mere inches from the actors in the first act. The acting is a tour-de-force here, as all the characters demonstrate their own ways of dealing with a recent nuclear-related armageddon. They live in a time of uncertainty, and are brought together recalling the lines from Cape Feare (an early episode of the Simpsons featuring Sideshow Bob trying to kill Bart). As they grill a new member of their group about lost loved ones, there is a dichotomy between despair and the need to distract from it, which is communicated flawlessly through nonverbal acting: actors pace the fire, sit silently and stare into the flames, jumping at the opportunity to recount meandering, darkly comic tales. 

The middle act of the play portrays the same group several years on, rehearsing plays based on various fragments of TV and pop culture which they recall. The audience flank the performance space on either side, following the conversations between the group’s director Colleen (Andy Simpson) and her actors, which appear to be like a tennis match. Dialogue sometimes lacks direction here, perhaps being in need of some more ruthless editing. However, the neatly choreographed performances of adverts, pop songs and, of course, Cape Feare are entertaining and absurd enough to hint towards the total ridiculousness of act three.

Moved to a new set, adorned to look almost like a church, we take a pew and watch a mildly unnerving musical unfold. 75 years have now passed since the nuclear event, and The Simpsons has taken on mythic proportions, becoming an epic battle set to music (which the band, consisting of James Ladds, Jonny Simon and Felix Dickenson, nail) between Bart (Grace Hart) and Mr Burns (Jack Prowse). These two show excellent diversity of skill in challenging roles, and the costume team have outdone themselves recreating vaguely recognisable Simpsons looks replete with harsh makeup and golden robes, emphasising the near-religiosity of this futuristic drama troupe. If criticism can be placed on this act, it is more the fault of the source material. Washburn’s final act is maybe overwrought, pushing a point about the evolution of stories over time which has already been stated by the preceding scenes. However, Spotlights make the musical a mad hatter’s tea party depicting humanity’s dedication to storytelling.


Four stars

Ellie Fernyhough

Photography: Lion Schellerer