Review: An hour of frights as legendary radio broadcast is recreated in Coventry

The radio broadcast terrified the USA
The radio broadcast terrified the USA

Nick Le Mesurier reviews The War of the Worlds at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

When it was first broadcast on October 30, 1938, Orson Welles’s radio production of The War of the Worlds allegedly caused mass panic, so realistic did the ‘live’ accounts of an alien invasion from Mars seem. Throughout the broadcast, which lasted around an hour, the public listened, horror struck, as one by one whole cities seemed to fall. Switchboards were jammed; the authorities intervened. Far more people were panicked than had actually heard the broadcast. The play was as much in the reaction as in the action.

And now? Well, if this performance of the original studio broadcast is anything to go by, the power of the drama is still as potent as ever. It would have been so easy for it to have been performed as something kitsch, but it’s taken very seriously, and the jam-packed audience were treated to an hour of frights that got them right under their skin.

Brian Emeney is superb as Professor Pierson, the hero of the drama, and as Welles: an immense presence, as Welles was, who literally conducts his actors to bring them in on cue and to recreate the sounds of chaos. The announcers, Annie Gay and Debra Relton-Elves deliver sharp, on the spot descriptions of the growing tension and the carnage. We see the action on stage as it was in the studio on the night, but we hear the conflict in our minds. The Criterion does a great job in bringing it all to life, even if we have (arguably) a greater awareness of fake news.

* The performances took place on October 27 and 28. Visit www.criteriontheatre.co.uk for details of future productions at the theatre.