Review by Oliver Wake
When Charley Wace’s (Des Carney) father dies, drowned in the Thames in mysterious circumstances, he goes to live with his uncle, Mr Cave (Mark Parsons) and his family at Cave’s antiques and curios shop in London’s decrepit Seven Dials. One of his father’s possessions, a seemingly ornamental crystal egg, is passed on to Charley and comes to exert a strange influence over Cave, and then Charley himself, who relates this tale to HG Wells (Edwin Flay), who will later, in the real world of 1897, write the story on which the play is based.
It’s a tale about obsession, madness and paranoia. Charley comes to believe the egg is, in fact, a Martian surveillance device, with the ‘canals’ observed on Mars actually being the shadows of giant towers – in our terms, receiving masts or aerials. Unfortunately, the crystal egg – so central to the whole play – is rather unimpressive. What should appear wonderous and ethereal instead looks like a novelty Christmas ornament. Perhaps this is inevitable given the limitations of stagecraft, but it does undercut some of the drama, with its apparently awe-inspiring lighting effects looking like the result of a disco ball.
It’s also unclear why the egg if it is indeed a Martian device, should advertise its alien nature with these light shows. Equally, perhaps I’m missing the point; I can’t recall now whether any character other than Cave witnesses the lights, so they might, in fact, represent his subjective experience, a symptom of his dawning madness. This sort of uncertainty hangs over the whole piece. Ambiguity can be dramatically effective, but here it makes the whole play rather unsatisfying. Indeed, so inconclusive was it that the audience I saw it with didn’t immediately recognise its end when it came.
The egg aside, considerable efforts have been made by the Old Lamp Entertainment theatre company and the Vaults theatre in realising the play, with two impressive sets, representing the Seven Dials exterior and the interior of Cave’s shop and home. These are arranged unusually, with the audience passing through the former for a short establishing scene (it’s not really immersive theatre, although the publicity uses that word) before being seated in front of the latter for the remainder of the play.
The publicity spiel calls it a “multi-media experience” and a “sci-fi extravaganza”. It is neither. A brief bit of projection and some fairly routine light and sound effects do not equate to a ‘multi-media’ production in my book, and “extravaganza” suggests something rather more large scale and lavish than what we get. In fact, on both counts this no bad thing, and the production’s strength is the intimate quality given by its narrow focus on the events in Cave’s shop (indeed, the opening outdoors scene could easily have been dispensed with). This also enhances the intensity of the performances, notably as Cave’s obsession turns to madness.
All the actors acquit themselves well, with Carney and Parsons the most impressive, though they were the only two with substantial roles. I was surprised by how little the character of Cave’s daughter, Anna-Jacoby (Carolina Main), was given to say or do. I wonder whether she was included primarily to give a member of an existing company a role and to prevent the cast otherwise being too heavily male-dominated. The latter at least would be laudable but much more should have been made of the character, particularly given that she is (mildly) mentally handicapped, which could have provided interesting opportunities to contrast her response to the egg with the effect it has on Cave and Charley.
The above may give an unduly negative impression of the play, so I should clarify that, though its publicity has done it no favours by setting the wrong expectation, it’s a solid piece of storytelling which remains engaging throughout. It only fails in the end because the tale lacks any definite resolution, leaving the whole piece feeling incomplete and therefore a little inconsequential.
The Crystal Egg is on until 15 January https://www.thevaults.london/the-crystal-egg Tickets from £30