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REVIEW: Machine Stops at Newcastle Northern Stage

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The Machine Stops
Newcastle Northern Stage
Thursday 30th March 2017

Directed by Juliet Forster
Designed by Rhys Jarman
Music by John Foxx and Benge
Lighting designed by Tom Smith
Movement Direction by Philippa Vafadari

Humans have lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. In order to survive they now live, in isolation, underground. All needs are serviced by a global machine which also facilitates communication between people.

The Machine Stops is based upon a science fiction short story by E. M. Forster which was first published in 1909. The story resonates in modern 2017 Britain as it predicted new technologies such as texting and the World Wide Web. The tale has been adapted for the stage by Neil Duffield. This fascinating tale feels very modern as we have the isolation that social media can create. There are the issues of false news being repeated, mindlessly, as fact without proper verification.

Vashti (Ricky Butt) lives in a bubble in which her many online friends, whom she never meets face to face, often repeat what she wants to hear.  She lives in a hexagonal space, like a bee, and has her every need looked after by technology. The lack of natural light and fresh air is not an issue as she can make her space dark for sleep when she wants and she can attend or deliver web hosted lectures when she wakes up. Her entertainment, food and other needs are looked after by the machine so no longer does she need to move.

There is an environmental angle too as assumptions are made about the state of the Earth as a habitable planet.  Having multiple generations living in this way and accepting the new way of live was, I felt, similar to the passengers on board of the Axiom spacecraft on the animation Wall-E.

Whilst Vashti is happy with her lot, her son Kuno (Rohan Nedd) has a rebellious streak. He wants to see if the outside world is that bad. The pod like existence means he has been allocated a space on the other side of the world which is connected by underground trains and a 2 day airship ride. The airship is one of the few elements feeling more like 1909 rather than 2017. Mother and son only stay in touch through web cams and texting.

Designer Rhys Jarman has created an intricate framework that has the honeycomb effect and doesn’t look strong enough to support someone’s weight and yet it carries both Maria Gray and Adam Slynn who are a part of the Machine. Their flexibility and strength makes the connecting and disconnecting look effortless.  The lighting design picks out the action and becomes another character by flagging up what could be out there too.

The Machine Stops also features a brand new soundtrack composed by John Foxx, pioneer of electronic music and founder of Ultravox, and analogue synth specialist, Benge. The sounds fit the action and echo that bleakness which came from electronic artists in the late 70s/ early 80s - think along the lines of Kraftwerk, pre-Dare Human League or Tubeway Army.

The cast do a great job, under Juliet Forster’s direction, of maintaining both the pace and the pathos of the piece. The decision not to have an interval is a correct one in order to keep the momentum going. Ricky Butt is believable as a part of the system; the happy camper who accepts their lot in life. Rohan Nedd is perfectly cast as the faithful and yet inquisitive son.  Despite the distance that technology and lifestyle create, there is an onstage chemistry in this powerful drama.

This play feels very deep yet highly engaging. Pilot Theatre, in association with the Theatre Royal York has created a superb commentary on technology. The show was really engaging and the reaction at the end as the lights went up was a large crowd really eager to talk to one another about their thoughts on the show - there was a real loud buzz at the end. The compelling tale is well worth seeking out.

Review by Stephen Oliver.

The final stop of the tour takes the show to Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from 4 - 8 April - see details and tickets.

Suitable for ages 11+

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes, no interval

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