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Mr Burns (Almeida)

Anne Washburn's Simpsons-infused apocalyptic saga is another feather in the cap of Rupert Goold's Almeida

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Demetri Goritsas and Jenna Russell in Mr Burns
© Manuel Harlan

Rupert Goold's Almeida Theatre simply does not do anything safe, predictable or, unless you are a clued-up devotee of the satirical television cartoon phenomenon known as The Simpsons, familiar.

This will be the wildest, wackiest show of the year, no contest; it's also a brilliantly inventive and engaging production by Goold's associate, Robert Icke, an epic triptych of futuristic cultural recovery in the wake of a nuclear plant disaster on the East coast of America, with songs.

That plant, of course, is Springfield, owned by the evil old capitalist Mr Burns and workplace of slobby ignoramus Homer Simpson, whose son Bart Simpson is pursued, in one of the show's most popular episodes, Cape Feare, by his nemesis, Sideshow Bob, to the fringes of Lake Terror.

Anne Washburn's "post-electric" play was developed, and premiered, in New York, fired by her own question of what would happen to a pop culture narrative "pushed past the fall of civilisation"? In the first act, refugees from the disaster - Boston's a mess, Providence deserted - replay the Simpsons classic in their own memories round a camp fire.

They each have a list of lost loved ones, whose names are read out as at the annual memorial of Twin Towers victims. No-one is found or known, then the darkness is pierced by the arrival of a Gilbert and Sullivan freak who regales them not with the whole of The Mikado - as Sideshow Bob does in the cartoon - but with "Three Little Maids", which will do.

Demetri Goritsas and Wunmi Mosaku
© Manuel Harlan

In the second act, which is a total theatrical blast, the group have formed themselves, seven years later, into one of several television programme and advertising companies, starting again with basic narrative adverts and a recreation, in crude theatrical terms, of The Simpsons. They are fighting off rivals, and each other, with basic technology and a squabble over the national drought of good new lines, a shrinking market.

And in the third act - 70 years ahead - they are performing an a capello operatic méelange of The Simpsons, in costume, with the opera house owner (Mr Burns, natch) cast as the heroic villain, a bad guy amalgam of Captain Hook (Bart is his Peter Pan) and Frank 'n' Furter from The Rocky Horror Show. The opera itself is a rock baroque pastiche composed by Orlando Gough and Michael Henry, with reference to Britney Spears and Ricky Martin.

The progress of the play is from the dark of disaster to the full-on fairy lights and electric funfair of what I take to be the tragedy of cultural retrieval, and the orgiastic qualities of theatre. The fact that this is accomplished by an episode of The Simpsons which references horror movies, including two Robert Mitchum titles, The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear (in the De Niro version), is another heavily-loaded irony.

Icke's production fires on all cylinders, superbly designed by Tom Scutt and cunningly lit by Philip Gladwell. The best compliment you can pay the outstanding cast of eight - Justine Mitchell, Jenna Russell, Annabel Scholey, Wunmi Mosaku, Adey Grummet, Adrian der Gregorian, Demetri Goritsas, Michael Shaeffer - is that they do not appear to be wearing robes borrowed from the improvisatory originators of the piece across the ocean.

Mr Burns continues at the Almeida until 26 July 2014