Just prior to this year’s VAULT Festival, Old Lamp Entertainment & Rebekah Harvey’s co-production of The Crystal Egg Live has just opened at the Vaults. Michael Archer has adapted the H.G. Wells story for the stage, thought by some to be an unofficial prequel to his famous The War of the Worlds, and it all takes place in Victorian London.
We first encounter Charley Wace on the streets of Seven Dials, asking passersby if they have seen a valuable item; he happens to spot famous author H.G. Wells in the crowd and asks for his help. Wace takes Wells inside and imparts his strange tale… His father died in mysterious circumstances and he was taken in by Mr Cave, who runs a curiosity shop in Seven Dials. Wace inherited a small box of possessions – the most significant being a large crystal egg, though he had little interest in it and let the intrigued shop owner have it instead. The family noticed that Mr Cave was becoming obsessed with the egg, claiming to see worlds inside and making scientific discoveries – but when an enigmatic foreigner comes to the shop claiming that the future of the world is in danger unless Charley gives him the egg, he’s unsure who to trust.
For all its promises of being a “multi-media experience”, I’m afraid it falls woefully short. When you are eventually let in to confirm your booking (around 10 minutes before the scheduled start time), you then go and queue to be let into Victorian London – after milling around there slightly aimlessly (unless you’re picked on by one of the cast & crew) the show officially starts, with first Parker making a speech and then Charley Wace. After that, the audience is led into Mr Cave’s shop where there are seats. Having been to several immersive shows in the past (including at the Vaults), I expected to then be moved on to one or two more sections, so didn’t worry about choosing a seat where I could see everything – but there was no further move. Consequently, I could only see the actors’ heads when they were stood up in the area directly in front of me.
I don’t care whether it would ruin the feel of the piece, or make things restrictive – if the bulk of your show is in that one place you need to have some sort of raked seating in place. Informing the audience of the show’s format would also be helpful, so you can make a proper decision about where to sit; the online material is vague at best, and there is no information provided at the venue either.
The size of the audience is also an issue. The shop set is rather long, which obviously helps to cater for a larger amount of people as you can create exceptionally long rows – the main problem with this is that you can only see what’s happening in your area of the room (unless you’re on the front row). Given that the show only runs at around 80 minutes, it would be fairer on the audience to schedule an additional performance rather than cram people in.
The multimedia aspect also seems to be non-existent. Aside from the egg occasionally lighting up at moments during the story, there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly extraordinary about this production – unless this is something that only front row viewers are allowed to see. The blurb on the website mentions video, for example, and I don’t recall seeing anything like that during the performance.
In terms of the story, I’m not really sure what the take-home message is supposed to be. Archer’s adaptation does seem to differ a fair bit from the original – with Wells himself appearing, it’s presumably suggesting these are the ‘real’ events upon which he based his short story – but instead of adding clarity, it simply confuses more. Yes, it shows the ill effects of obsession, but ultimately very little seems to be made of the real purpose of the egg (and the consequences of it falling into the wrong hands). It’s this unsatisfying conclusion (as well as some slightly uninspiring lighting throughout from Simeon Miller) that leaves you uncertain as to whether the show has actually finished or not.
Of all the performances, Des Carney’s is absolutely the strongest – although it is hard to see why Charley Wace is quite so distressed once he’s told his story. In spite of this, Carney’s conviction makes his character engaging from the very beginning, and he leads the show well.
My verdict? A disappointing production that doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and seemingly devoid of a point – audience experience is an afterthought.
The Crystal Egg Live is at The Vaults (Leake Street entrance) until 13 January 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.