Lass Productions and Scytheplays are no strangers when it comes to producing stage plays based on Doctor Who. Lass Productions first produced an adaptation of Russell T. Davies’ ‘Midnight’ back in January 2012 before teaming up with Scytheplays to adapt the Tom Baker classic ‘The Robots of Death‘ in July 2012. Now they’ve taken on their most audacious task yet – an adaptation of the very first episode.
There can be few unaware of Doctor Who, but probably quite a few who have little idea how the series initially began – and the initial ambiguity of its lead character. I’m naturally predisposed towards an appreciation for Doctor Who, as regular readers of the blog will know, so I could be accused of bias, but a good piece of Doctor Who does not necessarily translate to stage – a certain indefinable magic is required to make it work.
Doctor Who fans will know that one attempt to recast William Hartnell (Richard Hurndall in 1983’s ‘The Five Doctors’) was not exactly a roaring success. Luckily, An Unearthly Child 2013 has Phil Dennison at its helm. An uncanny mirror for Hartnell, he is at turns devious, child-like and drips with the same acerbic grumpiness that defined the First Doctor. His triumphantly chilling smirk at having launched the TARDIS into space gives an indication of what is to come. Dennison naturally puts his own spin on the role, one that reminds you how multi-layered this scared traveller is – fiercely protective of his granddaughter but suspicious of the two school teachers who have blundered into his life.
Laura Plows (recently seen in Hotel Midnight) and Edward Barry play Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, the two teachers who stumble upon the TARDIS whilst investigating one of their pupils. Plows and Barry work well together, their incredulity at the cavernous interior of the TARDIS in Unearthly giving way to fear at the ship’s failure in Edge. As our insight into this strange world they are easy to believe in, partly thanks to their chemistry – Barry in particular gets the chance to hold his own against Dennison.
Completing the quartet is the unearthly child herself, the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan. Played by Jess Heaps, it’s a completely different interpretation to the one given by Carole Ann Ford. This Susan is a much more surly one, yet is deftly played with an ethereal quality. Heaps’ frustation at her fellow classmates chiding her is well-played and impressively handled by director Dan Thackeray.
On paper, as a piece of theatre Unearthly shouldn’t work – it’s too reliant on the spectacle of the TARDIS to effectively work on stage. Indeed, in reality, it’s possibly a stretch to pretend you are in a ship that’s bigger on the outside when in reality you’re cramped in what is principally a bar and not a theatre space. But Peter M George’s lighting conveys the difficult initial journey of the TARDIS beautifully with a couple of neat tricks employed and the promenade styling of Unearthly manages to convince you for long enough that you are travelling from a junkyard to the time vortex.
The Edge of Destruction fares better – the plot device of the travellers turning on each other and the TARDIS failing works more effectively on stage than on television. As written, the reality may well have been for writer David Whitaker to keep costs down, but Edge remains an inherently theatrical piece – 4 characters, 1 set and a compelling central drama.
As a recreation of the original episodes, it’s a valiant attempt, and one that legitimises the success of Doctor Who by proving that the ideas are just as engaging now as they ever have been. As a piece of theatre, Edge of Destruction comes off the better of the two pieces turning from a hum-drum on-screen story into a remarkable piece of theatre with some genuinely unnerving segments. With a cliffhanger that segues into the following (and currently missing) story Marco Polo, you’re certainly left itching to see further adventures with this particular TARDIS crew.
The Fiction Stroker gives An Unearthly Child and The Edge of Destruction four strokes out of five:
There is only one performance left on Monday 25th November. All money goes to the Alzheimer’s Society. Also available are special prints illustrated and signed by artist Adrian Salmon depicting Phil Dennison as the Doctor, again with all money going to the Alzheimer’s Society.