First published in 1895, H.G. Wells’ serialised novel, The Time Machine, not only popularised the concept of time travel, but in fact coined the term ‘time machine’: the novel both explored the concept of travelling forward thousands of years into the future and metaphorically reflected Wells’ socialist attitudes towards the class divisions of the late Victorian period.
Now, on the 125th anniversary of its initial publication, The Time Machine has been adapted into a piece of time travelling promenade theatre at the London Library, a space which Wells called his “second home”. Thus, with all the sentimentality fuelling this production, it’s such a shame the end result is so disastrously dull and calamitously wasteful that it taints Wells’ hard-earned legacy.
First and foremost, this isn’t Wells’ The Time Machine: the production serves more as a reaction to the novel rather than an adaptation of it, with wholly new narrative being tacked on in its place. Whilst this isn’t inherently a bad idea, the new narrative is so boring and nonsensical that not adapting the novel directly feels like a wasted opportunity. Indeed, instead the audience finds themselves confronted with a Time Traveller and urged to follow him, with no explanation why or what for. As he traipses us through the library, supposedly transporting us from time zone to time zone by writing a new date in chalk on a leather bag (?!), we join him as he does… something? Truthfully, no explanation or contextualisation is ever supplied, so the audience spend the entire time thinking “what am I doing here, and why should I care?”
Moreover, perhaps in an attempt to echo the socialist undertones of Wells’ original novel, the production spends an inordinate amount of time connecting the narrative to topical issues. However, whilst Wells focused entirely on class divisions, writer Jonathan Holloway throws everything in there: there’s references to swine flu, vaccinations, propaganda, climate change, social media and even the club scene of 1970s New York. With so many eminent issues being mindlessly roped in by the characters, the production manages to say nothing of importance about any of them, whilst being very patronising as it does so; it’s all soapbox, no substance.
Furthermore, despite this underwhelming script, the actors deliver the lines in such a lacklustre manner that you wonder if they have any faith in the production at all. Indeed, our time-travelling guide spent the best part of the 90minute run time looking wistfully into the middle distance and making vaguely orgasmic noises to himself that apparently indicated he was travelling through time; at least, it seems, someone was enjoying the production, even if no one in the audience was.
However, despite all of this, the venue remained a joy to be in. With its labyrinth of bookcases, gorgeous ornate trimmings, and deeply intimate nooks and crannies, the London Library added some much-needed excitement to proceedings. As the guide led us round the space, our thoughts weren’t on the narrative we were meant to be following, but what new visual wonders the next room would bring; for all the aesthetic beauty and metaphoric possibility that the London Library offers, the production squanders it completely.
Perhaps the entire experience can be summed up by the very beginning: upon entering the first room, the production suffered a debilitating technical issue that meant the audience had to sit and pause for 10 minutes whilst the support team worked to fix it. As we sat there, waiting for something interesting to happen, we were bided over by the Time Traveller waxing poetic on how time travel can “change the colour of your socks”: little were we to know that it would never get any better than that.
The Time Machine is playing at the London Library until 5 April. For more information and tickets visit the London Library website.