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Triffids Invade Ipswich!
The Day Of The Triffids - on stage
interviews and review by Terry Gates-Grimwood

The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, has taken on the ambitious task of staging John Wyndham's classic science fiction novel, The Day Of The Triffids. Adapted by award winning television, film and stage writer Shaun Prendergast, and directed by Peter Rowe and Gavin Robertson, each performance of the play promises to be an electrifying evening of live drama quite unlike anything the audience will have seen before.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the novel, The Day Of The Triffids is set in the 1950s and tells the story of a world disaster in which the majority of the population are suddenly blinded by a dazzling explosion in the sky. Added to the ensuing panic and chaos is the presence of a breed of genetically modified, carnivorous and mobile plants called Triffids. Only a few sighted people remain and it is up to these survivors to find one another and rebuild some semblance of civilisation.

Shaun Prendergast was originally commissioned by another theatre to write a big-production adaptation, but the development of the piece became, in his own words, increasingly 'clunky' and would have required such a large cast and budget that it was clear that it was unlikely to ever be staged. Then Gavin Robertson from the New Wolsey contacted Shaun with the idea for a more theatrical and intimate adaptation.

At workshops, attended by Shaun Prendergast, Gavin Robertson, the New Wolsey's Artistic Director Peter Rowe, and four actors, the stripped-down script was developed into a tight, immediate version of the story. In this adaptation, the set is the framework for the piece rather than the basis around which the play is performed. "It is quite filmic," Peter Rowe explains. "And races along at a full-blooded, full-throttled pace with short scenes and a number of cinematic devices such as the fading and quick cutting from scene to scene. However, much is left to the imagination, the place where monsters are created." He added that the rehearsals, especially working with a brand new, untried script, have been very exciting.

The Day Of The Triffids was written over 50 years ago, yet, as Shaun Prendergast states, the novel asks some very up-top-date questions, not least about the dark side of technology and genetic modification. Some of the dialogue, he warns, sounds so contemporary the audience may not realise that it is actually lifted from a 54-year-old text.

Co-Director Peter Rowe read The Day Of The Triffids when he was a teenager and, when approached by Gavin Robertson about staging the story, re-read the book and discovered that so strong were his memories of the terrifying carnivorous plants, he had forgotten the apocalyptic landscape Wyndham painted and the author's uncomfortable questioning of how society can be re-started after such a holocaust, and what sort of society it would be. There were quite a few models for a new society on offer in the 1950s, among them communism, fascism and the humanistic family unit. There was also the opportunity to create a genetically clean civilisation by picking and choosing who would be welcome to your enclave of survivors.

Both Peter and Shaun see the soul of the book as the way it points its audience at this nightmare situation and asks, what are the choices here? What would you do? Also there is a sense that things are quickly decaying and winding down. This reflects the current sense of anxiety in the world, the feeling that we are all walking a tightrope between order and chaos.

The story's postwar setting, retained for this production, promises a wonderfully stark contrast between what was still a very moralistic and ordered society and the anarchy unleashed by the cataclysm. John Wyndham, Peter says, was good at identifying the assumptions people operate under - then removing all those moral and social codes. Shaun describes science fiction is very much a mirror to society and this novel serves that function well, although Wyndham's mirror is a distorting mirror.

There is, however, a strong the emotional narrative to the story. Shaun says that it is the relationship between Bill Mason and Josella Peyton that drives the narrative along and is the hook that engages the audience. Both are engaging and interesting characters. Bill, the archetypal 1950s' rugged hero, who is, conversely, slightly-shy around women, and Josella who is intelligent, self-reliant, very much her own woman. It centres on how the two work together as a partnership, and how their relationship evolves. In this respect, the story is structured neatly in two halves. The first tells the story of the catastrophe and how Bill and Josella meet. In the second half they have been separated and Bill is searching for her, very much the mythical quest through a nightmare world.

RADA-trained Ben Porter, who plays Bill Mason in this production, said that he found the character (a plant biologist) a lonely social outsider. The cataclysm forces him to embrace life and he ends up a better man. Ben says that he doesn't normally study the character first but, particularly in theatre, allows himself time for a total immersion in the role. Like Peter Rowe, he read The Day Of The Triffids as a teenager, but decided not to re-read the work for this production. The novel, he says, is the background material on which the play works, the source material. The play is a separate entity that should work on its own.

  • The Day Of The Triffids is at New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, 8th to 30th April 2005
  • It will move to Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival, 6th to 29th August 2005.

  • John Wyndham's The Day Of The Triffids
    New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, April 2005
    review by Terry Gates-Grimwood

    Adapting any novel for stage, especially a novel of global cataclysm like The Day Of The Triffids, with its multitude of locations, its grand scale, its cast of thousands and its monsters, is a daunting task. Yet Shaun Prendergast's script, combined with Peter Rowe and Gavin Robertson's direction, has created an absolutely electric piece that not only grasps the very soul of Wyndham's most famous book, but also manages to vividly recreate the images and atmosphere evoked by Wyndham's prose.

    Peter Rowe's stated intention was to make the play filmic in quality, pace and style and he has certainly achieved this. The story is told by a slightly older Bill Mason, whose mysterious preparations punctuate his narration, and provide a compelling hook. Then, from the moment the hospital doors burst open and the younger Bill Mason is wheeled into the emergency room with his eyes bandaged from the triffid sting that saves him from the imminent global disaster, the pace gears up to locomotive pitch. The atmosphere, however, remains claustrophobic, drawing the whole theatre into the terrifying microcosm that reflects the greater horror that surrounds it.

    Prendergast's script is economical and razor-sharp. The whole play is slickly, flawlessly choreographed and has an almost balletic feel. Each scene seems to melt into the next. There are no delays, no gaps for scene changes, not a moment wasted. The scenery itself is sparse, much is left to the imagination, yet utterly convincing. One moment you are on the streets of London, then in a pub, then in a luxury flat in Mayfair, then in a plague-ridden, dying city, then on a lonely road, and each time you really are there.

    The characters of Bill and Jocella are played with great sensitivity, developing and growing as the story progresses and quickly winning the audience's sympathy. Bill, the shy, slightly awkward scientist suddenly yanked from the work that is his life, and into the world where he is confronted by a series of agonising and tragic moral dilemmas. Jocella is the self-sufficient, rebellious young woman, who nonetheless, is afraid and vulnerable. Their relationship is affecting and provides a strong core to the story. Their forced separation creates a tension, intense enough for the audience to will them on as they try to find one another again.

    The other characters are also convincing and, in a few brief moments, either winning the audience's affection or generating its enmity. There is much doubling-up of parts but this works well. The actors manage to convince in each of their many roles, so successfully in fact, that it is easy to forget that, for example, the authoritarian army officer and the pathetic old man are being played by the same cast member.

    And then there are the triffids themselves. Surely any attempt to create these creatures on stage would end up with some sort of pantomime monster. So, the most terrifying triffids of all were created, those summoned up by the audience's imaginations. And it works. The triffids are there, alright - huge, horrific, malevolent predators, sliding out of the shadows that border the stage, every bit as, if not more, menacing as any CGI-formed, blockbuster monster.

    As with the novel, the play asks some unsettling questions about genetic engineering, 'Star Wars' technology, and, most disturbing of all, the human condition. It presents the stark moral choices we would face in such a situation, it shows the raw, brutal truth about survival and what it would actually mean, both for the those lucky enough to be physically unscathed by disaster, and those who are its victims.

    For anyone within 100 miles of Ipswich, The Day Of The Triffids is an essential night out. For those further afield, a train ticket and a bed-and-breakfast would be well worth the expense. It is a truly memorable, electrifying and in many ways shattering piece of theatre that will both astonish and disturb. I defy anyone to walk away from it untouched.

    Related items:
    tZ John Benyon Harris: The Early Pulp Science Fiction of John Wyndham
    tZ Night of the Triffids - interview with Simon Clark
    Day of the Triffids on stage at Ipswich

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    Ben Porter and Kirsten Parker in The Day of the Triffids

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     Kirsten Parker in The Day of the Triffids

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