Cambridge's leading amateur theatre production company

Established 1981

War of the Worlds: The Panic Broadcast
by Joe Landry    directed by Colin Lawrence

The Playroom, Cambridge July 2018

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War of the Worlds: The Panic Broadcast
Presented by Bawds at Corpus Playroom 10th to 14th July
Reviewed by Nick Warburton

This was a curiosity – a play within a play about a play. Much of what we witnessed started life as a radio play and the whole thing was set in a studio. This version was written by Joe Landry. It was inspired by and included Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds which had been adapted (incredibly quickly) by Howard Koch from the original novel by H. G. Wells. So – the work of many hands and presented in the wrong medium, it could easily have plodded. It didn’t. Far from it. The company, under Colin Lawrence’s expert direction, gave us an evening that was vibrant, full of interest and excitement.
 
Koch’s adaptation relocated the story to New Jersey and set it in 1939. It therefore touched on contemporary fears of invasion and the prospects of war. Many of its radio audience were convinced that what they were hearing was a real crisis unfolding in real time. The result was hysteria and confusion. One listener was sure she heard the radio telling her that the Germans were coming. Franklin D. Roosevelt was quoted as saying, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror … ”. (This production took place during the visit of Donald Trump to the UK. I merely mention the fact).
 
We were in good hands from the start as Guy Marshall drew us into the story with considerable conviction. From then on it sometimes seemed as if we were in two places at once – both in the studio (a simple but perfectly judged design by Barry Brown) and at the very site of the danger itself. This was achieved by Mark Easterfield’s subtle and clever lighting, by a very good sound design, and through the pace and conviction brought to the piece by a uniformly excellent cast. For example, when the crowds gathered in the studio, they at first reacted to the cues of the studio manager but then began to respond directly to the vivid description of the invasion as provided by a febrile and fully-engaged Guy Holmes.
 
Scenes were sometimes interrupted by sharply played commercials representing the American Dream and accompanied by a pin-point accurate jingle from Mike Milne.
 
Tim Drummond’s performance as the charismatic genius Orson Welles was compelling. There’s a moment at the end of the adaptation when he has to describe the destruction of the Martians. Although it’s lucid enough, the scene is an undramatic one: we don’t witness these significant events, we’re told about them. It’s a mark of Tim’s success in the role that this long and difficult speech created a powerful listening silence in the Playroom on a hot Saturday night in July.
This was a production to remember – and one on which to ponder.