War of the Worlds is a play written by Howard E Koch as an adaptation of the novel by HG Wells. While War of the Worlds has been adapted into a musical, big Hollywood blockbuster film and a television series, this play remains true to the original radio presentation style. The play is set in the radio transmission room and the audience watches the telling of this well-known true tale of public hysteria and what would now be described as “fake news”, despite the announcement at the start that this was an adaptation of the novel.
We watch as the cast arrive, take up their positions in front of their microphone, scripts in hand, and deliver the story to the radio listeners, the audience members voyeuristically watching. Chris Dahmen-O’Neill, Steve Saul, Liam Mitchinson, Tim Byron, Malcolm Sussman and Michael Fenemore superbly portray a multitude of characters, often moving from one microphone to another as they changed characters. But what really makes this play fascinating to watch is sound effects operator Francesca Carl, who uses an incredible array of gadgets and devices to a mesmorising effect, and just watching her in action would be worth the ticket price alone.
It may be hard to imagine just why people panicked and responded the way they did in 1938, particularly when being captivated by the visual presentation of the play, so when I found myself smiling in awe at what I was watching, I took a moment in the midst of the “invasion” and closed my eyes – and just listened and imagined what it would have sounded like back then, coming out of the radio in your lounge room. In a world before Facebook and social media, despite being told this was a play adaptation of a novel written some 40 years earlier, I could appreciate just how this may have come across to people sitting in their homes tuned in to the fastest source of news update, and entertainment.
Director Pip Le Blond has delivered one of her best works in War of the Worlds. The entire cast all give solid performances and balance each other well. I couldn’t actually tell if anyone was genuinely using their scripts or not, but I would have been disappointed if they had not, at times, glanced at what was in their hands, as you would when delivering a radio play.
Sound quality was excellent, diction was clear, accents helped to easily identify different characters and the stage was used effectively. Honestly, there was nothing to fault.
The set (designed by Pip and Robin Le Blond) is simple enough, but with some lovely design details and the small presentation space is used effectively. Wardrobe by Val Mitchelmore and Jan Langford immediately sets the 1930’s era. Lighting design by Robin Le Blond works well and the sound effects, by Pip and Robin Le Blond, had audiences completely enthralled and watching with mouths gaping in awe.
Although run as a one act play, War of the Worlds effectively has two halves – the first culminates with the alien invasion and the second follows a survivor in the aftermath of the alien invasion and his search for other humans. This story of survival is told across the radio by Orsen Wells, portrayed in the play by Michael Fenemore. This second half has the potential to be dialogue-heavy but Fenemore’s brilliant portrayal of legendary Orsen Wells is rivoting. Despite being an opening night, this play already felt very settled and executed seamlessly.
The presentation space of the Bakery Theatre has been set up with L-shape seating for this production and Michael Fenemore uses the space well to ensure his performance engages all parts of the audience. The presentation of real-life newspaper clippings and images during Fenemore’s portrayal of Orsen Wells, serves as a reminder that this event did actually take place, and provides some details of the fallout from the mass hysteria.
In a world still reeling with the coronavirus pandemic and year of Q-Anon conspiracies and fake news, its hard not to draw some parallels between our current time and this 1938 radio play presentation of War of the Worlds – removing the thought of an alien invasion but the concept of mass hysteria and the inability to distinguish truth from fiction. Although this play had been slated for the 2020 program, it perhaps felt considerably more relevant now?
I’d suggest buying a ticket to see this play, but the season sold out before opening night (a warning to get your tickets for future seasons early). Not only is it great to have community theatre back, this is community theatre at its best.