Walking through a seemingly less busy than usual central London towards The London Library in St James’s Square, there apparently was one thing on everyone’s mind – the coronavirus. Hoping that a couple of hours or so watching a site-specific, promenade, immersive version of H G Wells’ 1895 novella The Time Machine would give us a chance to forget about what was happening in the real world was soon removed as writer Jonathan Holloway had done his homework and although he wrote the piece last year, there was a number of mentions of a pandemic virus that was going to decimate the world’s population – chilling!
The reason Creation Theatre have set their version of The Time Machine in The London Library is that it’s where Wells spent a lot of his time borrowing and donating books and persuading friends to become members.
Holloway has taken Wells’ story as the starting point for the piece and although there are mentions of the Morlocks (scary, ape-like troglodytes who live below ground) there is very little else from the original. There isn’t even an actual time machine – it’s a briefcase with the date you want to travel to chalked on it.
Groups of around twenty people meet in the lobby and watch a short introduction video (from Holloway himself) telling us what we’re about to experience, to stay close to the walls and watch out for Morlocks. We’re then met by a Time Traveller who escorts us around the building. As the performances are timed, there are four actors who play the part. Our group had Leda Douglas who was superb, engaging with our group as she escorted us not only through the labyrinthine layout of the library but through time itself. On our journey, we met a number of characters including a computer (excellently played by Graeme Rose) who appeared on the various screens around the building and in actuality, the director of a government department and a Chat Show Host.
As good as the actors’ performances were, the real star of the evening was The London Library itself. Although the entrance is in St James’s Square, over the years the organisation has added various buildings around it – this is more of a Tardis than a time machine. The group was guided up and down stairs, around the “stacks” where the million or so books are stored and into various reading rooms that look as if they haven’t been touched since Wells’ time and also The Times Room where every copy of the newspaper since it was first published is preserved.
Holloway’s version of The Time Machine is a thought-provoking piece of theatre and is excellently directed by Natasha Rickman. It touches upon climate change, the human genome, philosophy, body augmentation, politics, ethics, social science and that dreaded virus amongst other subjects. At the end, we’re reminded by a voiceover that the piece was written last year before the outbreak of Covid-19 so Holloway’s research, some of which was carried out in conjunction with the Wellcome Centre For Ethics And Humanities, brings an up to date authenticity to the piece that he couldn’t have envisaged when he wrote it – or could he?
Along the way, we get to spend time in 2070 where we discover that the wealthy have de-camped to New Zealand where the climate is still temperate, and they can surround the islands with warships to keep everyone else out. We also discover that time travel was invented in the 70s in the basement of Studio 54 in New York!
As with their other immersive, site-specific productions such as Dracula and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Creation Theatre have put their own spin on existing work and added another dimension to it. It certainly engages all the senses and the use of computer screens, projections and sound make for an interesting evening. The story doesn’t always hold together and at times it becomes a bit too static and speechifying but on the whole, this is an engrossing piece of theatre with the added bonus of walking around one of London’s historic buildings – a real hidden treasure.
You may not get to see a Morlock but at times I could swear I sensed the ghost of H G Wells following us around.
Review by John Groves
Inspired by HG Wells’ The Time Machine, Creation Theatre takes audiences on a journey through the labyrinth of the iconic London Library, to a world in which time travel has generated thousands of parallel universes.
Award-winning playwright Jonathan Holloway (BBC Audio Drama Awards, Edinburgh Fringe First Awards, Prix Italia) pulls apart this classic sci-fi novel, re-invents it, and pieces it back together to create a world in which the present is endlessly shifting, and the future is strange and uncertain. Travellers tinker with timelines causing people’s names, faces and indeed the colour of their socks to change without warning.
Writer: Jonathan Holloway
Director: Natasha Rickman
Designer: Ryan Dawson Laight
Sound Designer: Matt Eaton
The London Library, St James’s Square
29 Feb – 5 April 2020
Wednesday to Sunday. Performance start 7:00pm, 7:20pm, 7:40pm and 8:00pm. Sunday performances start at 5pm, 5:20pm, 5:40pm and 6pm.