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Review: The War of the Worlds at Liverpool Everyman ****

HG Wells’ deadly fin de siècle sci-fi tale has been through any number of storytelling permutations and genres since it was published at the fag end of the 19th Century – from films to video games, comic books, a Twitter iteration and a famous, bombastic rock opera spectacular.

One of the key adaptations remains a 23-year-old Orson Welles’ 1938 Halloween broadcast, part of The Mercury Theatre on Air radio drama series and which has generated its own subsequent mythology.

Did some susceptible listeners really panic and imagine there was an alien invasion taking place in New Jersey?

It’s almost better for the purposes of this Rhum and Clay Theatre production if the Wells’ panic was fake news – because the blurring of boundaries between truth and fiction, between what is true and what we believe to be true, and the manipulation of facts is at the heart of the company’s premise.

This play isn’t a version of Wells’ The War of the Worlds - it’s Welles’, the great American auteur embodied by each of the four-strong cast simultaneously with the aid of nothing but a pipe each.

Rhum and Clay’s MO is devised physicality and overlapping narratives, delivered with the help of flashbacks and montages.

Here the story, set primarily within the walls of two radio studios with an excursion to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, moves between 1938 and 2016, making parallels between Welles’ deception, Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump with his ‘alternate facts’.

In the ‘today’ we meet Meena (Jess Mabel Jones), an ambitious podcaster who is fascinated by her late neighbour’s story about being abandoned as her family fled Grover’s Mill in fear and embarks on a journey to find out what really happened that night.

The War of the Worlds. Photos by Jamie MacMillan

Her subsequent encounters with others confuse the picture, and Meena herself resorts to fakery in a bid to get her story.

A key scene is replayed from a series of different perspectives, but which is ‘the truth’? As Her Majesty would say – recollections may vary.

The central argument is by no means watertight, not least because Welles’ broadcast wasn’t technically a hoax at all; it was in the radio listings and given a lengthy introduction by the man himself.

But the production, deftly and energetically performed, throws up a host of questions for us all to ponder in this age of rolling news, social-verses-‘mainstream’ media, blogs, podcasts et al.

Questions about people’s susceptibility and willingness to believe whatever they read and hear, questions about who has responsibility for the truth, and about the knowing dissemination of false facts and conspiracy theories.

As Jonathan (Julian Spooner), writing outlandish claims online from his New Jersey bedroom for an invisible audience, says in his defence: “It’s not my job to believe it, it’s my job to give them what they want.”

And Welles – if not Wells - would probably agree with that broad sentiment at least.

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