This is not really an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel of 1895. Morlocks do lurk behind the doors and there is some discussion of the fourth dimension, as well as several quotations from the text. But it’s more of an extension of ideas about time. After all, if we can travel back and forth, then why not mix up periods and have our pasts and futures become part of the experience?
And so, one of the four time travellers in the cast takes a group of twenty of us on a journey within the London Library, where Wells was a member for fifty years. Computers teach us about jumps and secret experiments. The man we’ve just seen on screen then appears as the Computer, wearing wide lapels and mechanically regurgitating information. (Graeme Rose makes him simultaneously funny and creepy.) It’s the Nineteenth Century, then we are in 1978, it’s Studio 54 in New York, Donna Summer is blasting out, and there’s talk of a scientist called Oliver Hardy who just happens to have the same name as Laurel’s companion. Add to that a new definition of gurning and the disjointed nature of the performance becomes integral to our understanding of concepts. There is also an attempt to make the show more urgent by rendering it illegal.
Despite the occasional technical blip, director Natasha Rickman has devised a carefully choreographed show in which the audience gracefully moves from room to room, quickly settling down for the next part. We can hear and see everything we need to. Our time traveller, Paul (PK) Taylor, grotesque in artificial nails and antique spectacles, is harrowed by what he has seen, but deals wonderfully with his ‘witnesses’ as he calls us. We grab his time machine – in fact a battered briefcase – and try to transport ourselves through years. Amazingly, he calls one of us by our actual name, then addresses another: ‘You’re Iris.’ ‘No’, she says. ‘Well’, he says, ‘You were before.’ He tells another to use his mobile phone and another to chalk a different date on his briefcase. He is at ease with the necessary improvisation.
Several snippets are particularly successful: suddenly looking up to see an actor in the gallery, following him on to the next compartment. In the Times Room, Taylor reminds us, not just that Wells would have been where we are now, but that two hundred years of the newspaper are housed there, condensing the times of the Times within our time machine. What’s more, the vision provided of the future is suitably apocalyptic: bacteria and disease have caused cataclysmic destruction, reducing the world population to 500 million. All this, written before the Coronavirus.
In the Bookstacks, having shown us a newspaper from the future, Taylor goes one level beneath us, but we can see him through the grated floors in between the bookshelves. He has a recording over which he speaks to guide us through the labyrinth. It’s a brilliant few minutes: the sonic overlap combines with the different spatial levels. Even the books we pass by allude to a past (by their very dusty presence) and possible futures (by their subject matter on nuclear warfare and vampires). Yet the traveller with his recording reminds us of Beckett’s Krapp, spooling the tape of his life. And that echo underlines what is missing from this adventurous production: a personal story, with a relationship to grab us as we try to follow the ideas along with the relocation to various rooms.