Theatre reviews: Jack | The Time Machine

Lawrence Boothman gives a fearless, funny and intensely-felt performance in Jack, the opening show of the Play, Pie and Pint spring season at Oran Mor, writes Joyce McMillan

Jack, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

The Time Machine, Perth Theatre ***

And they’re off. Eighteen plays, 20 playwrights (because two of the shows are co-written), and more than 10,000 Scotch pies and veggie sausage rolls at Oran Mor alone – yes, it must be the Play, Pie and Pint spring season, Jemima Levick’s last as artistic director; and it looks like a fascinating one, front-loaded with shows by brand new writers, the first six of which will transfer immediately to the Traverse in Edinburgh.

All of which makes it highly appropriate that the first play up, this spring, is directed by the Traverse’s own artistic director, Gareth Nicholls. Jack is a poignant yet spiky monologue by debut writer Liam Moffat, in which a no-holds-barred Lawrence Boothman gives a fearless, funny and intensely-felt performance as a young gay man who is living his best life in London – or trying to, despite the intrusion of Jack, the unwanted but lovable dog his partner has given him for Christmas – when sudden bereavement stops him in his tracks.

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Many of the aspects of bereavement covered in Moffat’s play are familiar, from the exclusion of a gay life-partner at the family funeral, to the professional counsellor whose advice doesn’t help. The presence of Jack, though – always enthusiastic, even when threatened with transfer to the cat and dog home – provides a sense of kindly witness to the misery and isolation of bereavement, as if the universe itself was keeping a loving eye on our suicidal hero; and there’s a memorable intensity in both Moffat’s writing and Boothman’s performance, as Jack eventually begins to nudge him out of the labyrinth of raw grief, towards the beginnings of recovery.

Nothing so weighty occurs, alas, in Original Theatre’s The Time Machine, a comedy directed by former Traverse boss Orla O’Loughlin which is currently on a UK tour, and arrives in Perth armed with a London review describing it as “the best night out ever”.

One fears, though, for the night life of the critic who wrote that; for in truth, this new comedy by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, loosely inspired by HG Wells’s The Time Machine, is nothing but an over-extended student sketch of a show, that riffs gently on the idea of time travel in theatre for what seems like a long two hours including interval. In best play-within-play style, a young company of three actors – including a great-great-grandson of Wells himself, played in best public-school style by George Kemp – sets out to tell Wells’s story; but is unable to get very far, as young Wells, in the role of the Time Traveller, starts to time-travel for real, within the framework of the show.

Lawrence Boothman in Jack PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken WanLawrence Boothman in Jack PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Lawrence Boothman in Jack PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Eventually, the audience moves on to the second act, while the actors continue to repeat the first, growing ever more panicky as they fail to find a version in which the exasperated woman in the cast, played with gusto by Amy Revelle, does not succeed in accidentally killing the third actor, an engagingly confused Irishman played in fine style by Michael Dylan, vividly remembered by Traverse audiences as the hero of James Ley’s play Wilf, about a man involved in a passionate affair with his Volkswagen.

This self-undermining version of The Time Machine eventually limps through its final hour with the help of some dilatory audience participation, and receives a generous round of applause for its hard working cast. The overall effect, though, is to make Jordan & Skinner’s feminist version of the story, seen around Scotland in 2022, look like a toweringly substantial and thoughtful contemporary response to Wells’s text; and those with an interest in Wells, or in science fiction, or in anything at all apart from a lightweight giggle on a winter’s night, would be well advised to give this show a miss, for fear of disappointment.

Jack at Oran Mor, Glasgow until 24 February, the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 27 February-2 March, and Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, 5-8 March. The Time Machine at Perth Theatre until 24 February.