The Crystal Egg, The Vaults, London ★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

HG Wells’s short story The Crystal Egg, first published in 1897 as his better-known work The War of the Worlds was being serialised, can be thought of as a companion work to the author’s novel of Martian invasion. Its tale of a device which offers visions of life on Mars – and the implication that it is a two-way communication system, affording the Martians an opportunity to learn about Earth prior to invasion – can either be read as a prologue to the larger work, or completely independent from it.

Whatever its original relationship to the larger work, The Crystal Egg is, on its own, a rather slight and unremarkable text. In order to form a one-act play, writer Mike Archer introduces a new family dynamic to the tale of an infirm antique shop owner who comes into possession of the egg. In Archer’s version, the egg arrives as the family takes in young relative Charley Wace (Des Carney), whose crystal-obsessed father has been found floating in the Thames.

On one level, the dynamic between Mark Parsons’s Cave, who becomes obsessed with the egg and refuses to sell it, and Jess Boyde as the wife who, after years of penury, sees the bauble as an answer from God to her regular prayers, is a fairly standard one. The mystery kicks in when the shop is visited by an elegant foreigner (Vincent Latorre), who offers more and more for the egg as the obsessed Cave continues to refuse to sell it.

The effectiveness of the whole battle of wits over the egg is entirely dependent upon the effect the crystal has on its recipients. And while an initial internal light within the prop appears crude, the eventual full reveal of what the egg shows to Cave is effectively realised. Simeon Miller’s lighting and projection designs turn windows and paintings into portals onto a red planet with real beauty.

Less effective is Archer’s dialogue, which has a tendency to slip into 21st-century idiom rather too often, while a framing device of having the adult Wace narrate the tale to HG Wells himself feels a little pat.

And while Jason Kelvin’s recreation of a Victorian street as one enters the theatre space is effective, the prelude to the piece, which includes a protest about the removal of the York Column from its home in London’s Seven Dials, adds little thematically to the central story. The promotion of this piece as an “immersive” show really only applies to this initial prologue: once the audience is moved into the main theatre space and seated, it remains a conventional theatre piece that struggles only occasionally distinguishes itself.


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