The Time Machine: A Comedy review – malfunctioning merriment

New Wolsey theatre, Ipswich
This riff on HG Wells’s sci-fi novella has a sharp cast but relies on a wearisome play-within-a-play concept and lacks momentum

In 2021, HG Wells fans were aghast at the Royal Mint giving the Tripods an extra leg and the Invisible Man the wrong kind of hat on a new £2 coin. Well, shield your eyes, Wellsians! Here is a goofy comedy that makes the author himself a time-traveller, adds songs by Cher and jokes about Harry and Meghan, and invites one audience member to dress up in a monstrously bad Morlock outfit.

The Time Machine propels readers into the year 802701 to find a burning world riven by class conflict – pertinent themes for a bold comic treatment. But Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s script draws on the 1895 novella to focus almost entirely on tricksy gags about the logic and paradoxes of time travel. The show is structured around the over-familiar concept of actors putting on a shambolic play within the play. The effect, as with the recent adaptation of The Lavender Hill Mob, is frustratingly tinny.

Wells gave his time traveller twinkly eyes and “more than a touch of whim” so the beaming Dave Hearn is well cast in the central role and has a hugely likable presence – as do Amy Revelle and Michael Dylan. Hearn is best known for his irresistible appearances with Mischief Theatre and the show-goes-wrong style (out-of-sync lines, ham-fisted acting, outrageous innuendo) is used here to milder effect. Orla O’Loughlin’s amiable but fitfully funny production for Original Theatre Company often meanders and lacks the momentum that drives Mischief’s blissful comic hits.

Amy Revelle and Michael Dylan in The Time Machine: A Comedy.
Amy Revelle and Michael Dylan in The Time Machine: A Comedy. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

An ongoing gag is that the problem with adapting The Time Machine is how many boring bits there are in the original. That’s a fair observation but these madcap proceedings become monotonous too. Time travel makes you ask really big questions about the future, we’re told, yet none are deeply pursued in a show that doesn’t dwell on Wells’s prescience.

A looser second half lets the actors step more out of character for some crowdwork and audience participation, much of it strangely generic. It ticks along because the performers are so skilled and personable but, as Dylan delivers a Hamlet soliloquy (by way of Withnail and I) and the trio dance to B*Witched, it feels as arbitrary as a four-legged Tripod.


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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