Built in the mid nineteenth century, the building formerly known as Lady Glenlorchy’s Parish Church still stands in Edinburgh’s Old Town and will likely stand for a hundred years more; currently the venue known as Assembly Roxy, that state cannot be regarded as permanent and unchanging, a truth emphasised at the present time in its Gothic wooden loft of black drape, brick arches and veiled stage which hosts a time machine.
Materialising on stage in a pair of comfortable trainers, anachronistic against the tweed of his costume, the traveller wolfs down his breakfast of cheese and a glass of water which he laid out only hours before when he left at ten o’clock that morning, eight days having passed since that moment which he recounts breathlessly as though experiencing the wonder and horror of every moment for the first time.
The building already standing long before H G Wells’ debut novel was published in 1895, as one of the first “time travel” novels – in fact one of the first major science fiction novels, that term not even to be coined until several decades later – in terms of structure and narrative it is perhaps uncomplicated when considered alongside the more recent Predestination or Arrival, yet the first person monologue admirably facilitates adaptation to the stage for a single performer.
This is not to diminish the skill and talent of either writer/director Elton Townend Jones or performer Stephen Cunningham for it is difficult enough to hold the attention of an audience through a one hour stand up show and this is an intense ninety minute dramatic monologue unleavened by comedy or any other notion of relief with only Cunningham’s presence and delivery of the material on which to build a collapsing world.
Fortunately Wells was a brilliant descriptive writer and with only minor necessary adjustments it is that prose which Jones has preserved requiring only that it be recited with fervour by Cunningham whose animated exultations and fevered performance channel the philosophy and dreams of Wells but also his justifiable and informed fears.
Displaced in time into the era of the “golden men of the future,” the Eloi, and the “bleached subterranean obscenity” of the Morlock, its true strangeness is only slowly revealed to the traveller as his mind comes to comprehend the vast distance that separates him from home and the ghastly symbiosis which exists between the last surviving races of “the great abandoned tomorrow.”
A socialist whose family were not affluent, Wells’ thinking of the social structure of his own life led him to extrapolate that divide further to a world where “the haves above ground enjoy a life of pleasure, the have nots adapted to conditions below,” and as the traveller comes to realise there is a terrible reason the Eloi are afraid of the dark and as the lights go out in the chamber, the audience are as rightly frightened as he.
It’s a minimal production, most obviously in the time machine itself which is a pocket watch rather than the more ostentatious design of George Pal’s 1960 film version, but through simple yet effective lighting and Cunningham’s conviction the space is transformed from open fields to oppressive forests, from a decaying museum to the underground killing chambers of the Morlock.
The machine reduced to “something so small, so fragile,” it makes it easier for the traveller to lose his link to home and the subsequent moment of panicked desperation driven by ultimate isolation is one which Wells used often with his male protagonists, in The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon to name but two, displaying an honest humanity in his writing which many later authors of the golden age ignored in their rush to the stars.
With well over a century passed since it was conceived, The Time Machine arrives ready to be appreciated by a modern audience who will marvel at how relevant it remains in its observation of the future and the warnings given long ago that the transcendence to futurity is not without danger, the sunset of man expressed eloquently by Jones and Cunningham yet with glints of hope remaining flickering on the horizon in a production which warrants a solid four stars.