Let's get one thing straight to begin with: this comic canter through The War Of The Worlds has nothing to do with Jeff Wayne. There's music, yes, performed live on stage, and a nod or two to lines of dialogue made famous by the iconic rock-opera. But this is actually a surprisingly faithful treatment of HG Wells' original novel, in a show which balances high-spirited playfulness with a sincere and often sensitive story.
The tale is narrated by Christopher Smart, resplendent in waistcoat and mutton-chops, looking every inch the Victorian gentleman at the heart of Wells' tale. The other three actors cycle between roles – donning moustaches to become soldiers or a cassock to evoke a clergyman – and sometimes retreat to the back of the stage to play an instrument or two. The audience get to be part of it as well; the actors talk to us, respond to our laughs or applause, and the overall feeling is very much of an enjoyable endeavour being shared.
Creative riffs keep on coming. Ogilvy the Astronomer is followed by a blackboard wherever he goes, while a soldiers' parade degenerates into dance moves. Yet when the stakes ramp up, it gets genuinely exciting: in an intense, starkly-lit scene, Smart hunches over a table to re-enact his first encounter with the aliens, a tea-urn brilliantly depicting the metal leg of a Martian fighting machine.
Some of the funniest moments are simple one-liners, while extended puns and pop-culture references trigger frequent groans of recognition from the audience. There's plenty of interplay between the cast as well. Perhaps it got a little too loose on the day I attended – but whether the banter is scripted or genuinely spontaneous, the in-character joshing between the four actors creates the sense that they're enjoying themselves every bit as much as we are.
Condensing a novel to a one-hour play clearly requires a cut or two, and the script limits itself to events around the narrator's home near Woking. So we don't get the sinking of the Thunder Child, but we do get a strong sense of locality and immediacy – the understanding that war affects individual people, on a personal and poignant scale. The militaristic undertone of Wells' novel is present and correct as well: the narrator's certainty that a single shell will finish off the Martians is a telling comment on human hubris, with echoes, maybe, in some of the misjudgements of our recent past.
At times, in fact, I wished they'd done more with that. Every now and then Smart slows down to take things seriously, but there's always a hint of parody in his delivery; I'd have loved to see what happened if the group embraced the moment fully, and let the shock and emotion of the events they're describing come properly through. Overall though, The War Of The Worlds is a fine and rare creation – a jovial, convivial comedy, which still shows respect for the story it tells. Fly to the Warren to see it.