The story of the panic induced by Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of HG Wells’s sci-fi novel has been told many times. But this show, devised by Rhum and Clay and written by Isley Lynn, offers a fresh take by seeing it as a harbinger of the hoaxes that have accelerated over the last 80 years. Even if I’d quarrel with some of the conclusions, I enjoyed the piece’s wit, pungency and physical skill.
Four actors swiftly evoke the original broadcast: dance-band music is intercut with on-the-spot reports from New Jersey where the Martians have supposedly landed. Whole books have been written about the hysteria this induced, but the play really gets going when Meena, a British media studies graduate, visits Grover’s Mill, where the radio drama was set, to explore the truth of a story that a 13-year-old girl was abandoned by her terrified family. Meena discovers the town is filled with tourist sites commemorating a fictional event. We realise that we live in a world where the line between lies and truth has become increasingly blurred.
The show, with its reference to Trump and Brexit, fails to make a crucial distinction. Welles was an artist giving a radio drama a reportorial urgency: politicians tells porkies for their own ends. But, directed by Hamish MacDougall and Julian Spooner, the show is deft and ingenious without the self-advertising quality you sometimes find in devised pieces. The four actors simply stick a pipe in their mouths to become Orson Welles.
Benjamin Grant’s sound design reminds us of radio’s capacity to make invasion from outer space seem plausible. A remote control is used to evoke a Grover’s Mill geek’s delight in creating fake facts that spread like a virus through the internet. The cast, including Mona Goodwin as the podcasting visitor and Amalia Vitale, Matthew Wells and Spooner himself as the bizarre family she meets, all play with great verve. It’s a fast and clever show, even if its argument that we can be made to believe anything was pre-empted by Welles himself in his magical final movie, F for Fake.
At the New Diorama, London, until 9 February.