You might be forgiven for thinking that an adaptation of a 1970’s Doctor Who adventure, brought to life in the 21st century, in a venue not used to staging events – let alone a technically demanding play, might not be a success. Read on to find out why you would be wrong.
For the uninitiated, The Robots of Death was a 1977 Doctor Who story, written by Chris Boucher (who later had tremendous success writing for Blakes’ 7) and starred Tom Baker as the Time Lord. A murder mystery with creepy mechanical monsters, it is widely regarded as one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. Naturally, this adaptation is sans the Doctor and his then companion Leela, but retains much of what made the original enjoyable as well as adding new layers.
I’ve previously touched on the new adaptation in my coverage of the launch event which featured Paul Darrow and Tracy Russell reprising their roles as Iago and Blayes, the two protagonists thrust back in time to the Storm Mine murders, and the finished production has not disappointed. Alan Stevens and Chris Boucher’s script is pacy and does not let up its fast moving pace until the very end, and has more than enough incident and intrigue to maintain attention.
A superb cast has been assembled for this production with many of the actors giving memorable inflections to what, in some cases, are sadly only cameo roles (obviously in a murder mystery, there has to be victims, and they are plentiful here). Marlon Solomon and Kate Millest lead as Iago and Blayes respectively. Solomon’s initially foppish Iago gives way to a more steely performance in the latter stages of the play whilst Millest’s convincing performance is impressive. Millest knows how to work an audience and is captivating to watch.
The (nearly) all female crew, designed by accident as much as fortune, gives a different feel to the crew of the Storm Mine than the original. They are not merely window dressing either; there is a tremendous amount of talent here that only serves to highlight how lucky we are to have actresses of this calibre in Manchester. The stand out amongst them, which is difficult given the range of cast iron performances, is Leni Murphy’s Toos. Murphy’s Toos is a revelation – transforming the character into a sarcastic and funny individual that the audience lap up. Jessica Hallows is also convincing and commanding as the embittered Uvanov. Elsewhere, Gerard Thompson gives an astonishing performance as the anguished Poul who suffers from robophobia whilst Will Jude Hutchby is pitch perfect for the voice of the robots.
The actual adaptation, as previously touched on in my review of ‘Darrow Day’ has been further tightened and a few subtle edits made. Whereas Part One is mostly faithful to the source material, Part Two is a reworking of the script to add in a new denouement – much more I won’t spoil, but it is designed to lead into next week’s sister play Storm Mine. Whilst this is a more liberal interpretation of the source material than Midnight back in January, this new version works free of the constraints of the Doctor Who format to the story’s benefit.
The staging at Fab Café is, for the most part, impressive. The technical limitations of the venue as a staging arena (there are pillars propping up the roof that can obscure views for instance) are overcome by the sheer ambition and scale of the production. Good use is used of the ‘bridge’ set (in reality, the DJ booth that was made up to look like the bridge of the Enterprise) and accompanying smoke machine whilst the remainder of the venue’s dance floor doubles for the crew room and Taren Capel’s workshop. However, were Fab Café to be used again for staging (and I hope it is), I would recommend turning some of the lights around onto the actors. Despite alterations and tweaks to the lights, it still remained stubbornly dim for some scenes.
Kerry Ely’s direction is tight, and she has marshalled her actors to keep refining and polishing the final product. Costumes and props look the part with the iconic robots (complete with masks as sculpted by Terry Cooper) gracefully striding amongst the audience. With one of the largest casts I’ve seen in a Fringe production and demanding staging requirements, Ely and her team have achieved what many would have thought impossible in this fine re-creation of a classic.
The Fiction Stroker gives Robots of Death Live four strokes out of five:
Robots of Death is on at Fab Cafe Manchester, Portland Street until 24 July. Iago and Blayes nightmare continues in the sequel Storm Mine, which can be seen at The Lass O’Gowrie, Charles Street from 28-30 July.
Robots of Death is part of the Greater Manchester Fringe, more information about which can be found here.