Review: An Unearthly Child / Director: Daniel Thackeray and Phil Dennison / Cast: Phil Dennison, Laura Plows, Edward Barry, Jess Heaps / Location: Fab Cafe Manchester / Dates: November 18th, 19th and 23rd
Turning the first ever episode of Doctor Who into a theatrical production is the sort of idea we have come to expect from the creative scene in Manchester; the region seems to be teeming with talented types looking to tell amazing stories on the smallest of possible budgets, and it’s just the thing we’ve come to expect from Lass Productions (who produced a stage version of Porridge) and Scytheplays (who have previously created adaptations of The Ballad of Halo Jones and V for Vendetta).
In case you’ve been asleep for the last fifty years, An Unearthly Child is the story that introduced British audiences to The Doctor. The plot is simple but also strange; a pair of school teachers become curious and concerned about their pupil, Susan, who is much more than she seems. Their meddling leads them to an old scrapyard, and a life-changing encounter with The Doctor.
Making full use of the unusual venue (The Fab Café), the show uses multiple sets to tell a story that is now part of television history. The audience stand in the middle; the rest of the building is filled with various props required for the different scenes. To help the audience know where to look, the producers have provided a helpful 1960’s style policeman who points the way to the next scene with his handy torch. This does give the show a very immersive feel; though we’re simply watching the events happen, it’s easy to get sucked into a story when there is no barrier between the actors and the audience.
Phil Dennison delivers a staggering performance as the First Doctor; he captures the spirit of the twinkly eyed yet curmudgeonly and devious character perfectly, mimicking William Hartnell’s performance in a near perfect style. Jess Heaps also impresses as Susan Foreman; though the actress does not resemble the show’s original, Heaps delivers a powerful blend of youthful zest and alien eeriness that draws the audience in. After all, the story is named after this character, so the role really does need to be handled expertly. Heaps does this effortlessly and impressively. The nosey teachers are also appropriately disbelieving and amusing, and the two actors play off each other very well, adding the same sort of chemistry that made the original drama so beguiling.
Stage production wise, the tiny budget is quite obvious and those expecting an authentic looking TARDIS console are expecting a little too much given that the entire thing is a not-for-profit labour of love, with all proceeds going to the Alzheimer's Society. It’s also nice to see the Fab Café’s own TARDIS get some use. If you’re lucky enough to be in Manchester for the Doctor Who celebrations, then you should check out this unique production.