Huddled round a campfire, post-apocalyptic refugees try to remember the words to a sacred text – it’s recited, puzzled over, and elaborated on. This safe spot in a poisoned America? Cape Feare: The Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob’s quest to kill Bart reaches dramatic, gothic heights. It’s no coincidence that these reminiscers refer to its Second Act, or savour lines like sips of salvaged Diet Coke. By the end of this brilliantly imaginative three-parter, the episode has turned first to theatre, then to intense spiritual pageant.
The genius of playwright Anne Washburn’s approach is to convert The Simpson's grotesque brand of apocalyptic comedy into real-life tragedy. Crucial facts seep out as gradually and erratically as the toxic sludge stored in barrels in The Simpsons' family basement. There's been a disaster, we learn. First a disease that wipes out he majority of population. Then fires, then the explosion of untended nuclear power plants, then mysterious chemical spills and unexplained illnesses. The Simpsons is as joyfully toxic as a 1950s atomic clock, or watch with radium-painted dial. But in this bleak reality, passing time is measured out in the half-life of resources, as diet cokes are drunk and smoke for the haze effect is meted out – too much decay is poisonous.
But the characters never make direct reference to the similarities between their own dysfunctional realities and The Simpsons’ hyper reality. Instead, they retreat into recreating their memories of episodes that, in a post-electricity world, they’ll never watch again. This entails discussions as exhaustive and exacting as the efforts of any scholars of Renaissance drama, trying to reconstruct the opening pages of a lost masterpiece. In the first act, they’re too shell-shocked to do more than remember, in between sharing notebook lists of lost friends and family. Seven years later, they’ve turned into actors. They set up booths after shows to buy missing lines from audience members. Unprofitable hours mainlining Fox network turn to a lucrative premium for a lucky few who can remember whole sequences. Designer Tom Scutt creates pitch perfect sludge-coloured painted backdrops, inadvertently sinister masks crafted for a soiled, reluctantly 3D re-enactment of a flat bright tv screen.
Seventy-five years later, and the layers of irony encasing the episode’s dramatic climax have been completely lost in Scutt’s beautiful glitter of foil, sequin and candelabra light. If Robert Icke’s direction could be accused of being a little sluggish in the two preceding acts, this perfectly judged, sharply sung blend of Gilbert and Sullivan kitsch, ritualistic chanting and drag-show style utterly redeems him. The points of Bart’s hair are a golden crown, and he’s a boy hero whose cruder catchphrases have softened into gnomic obscurity. The original Homer who juggles with nuclear rods or lodges in a reactor cooling tower like a thermo-nuclear powered reverse Santa becomes a heroic everyman without the benign chuckles. Cape Feare is already laced with references to Hitchcock, The Mikado, and the Cape Fear horror films – here Orlando Gough and Michael Henry ingeniously tie them up together with a soundtrack of MTV hits. Most brilliantly of all, Britney Spears's Toxic becomes an anthem of literally nuclear corruption, as Mr Burns seduces, or rather assaults, Lisa as he sings of "toxic love," a nuclear hazard symbol on the back of his tailcoat.
Matt Groening’s trick, with The Simpsons, is so often the cartoon equivalent of a camera panning out to reveal the full frame, bursting with unexpected context. Sideshow Bob threatens to kill Bart in notes penned in blood – it’s revealed as ketchup. This production exploits audience expectations just as ruthlessly, with a second act opening on a wholesome family scene that turns out to be a re-enacted TV advert, in a visceral, sensual recreation of the lost pleasures of Trader Joes and hot baths. The players in turn know just how to manage their audience, giving them memories of Chablis, not the less familiar Shiraz, which could send them into spirals of now-defunct social insecurity.
Although theatre audiences can often be safely trusted to a little bit of wine-buffs’ humour, intense engagement with The Simpsons, Britney Spears, or the climactic Eminem’s One Shot is less of a given. The gentleman next to me asked “Do you think it’ll catch on?” – and judging by his baffled demeanour, he hadn’t. But this three-part retelling of a Simpsons episode shouldn’t need tasting notes, nor should label snobbery put anyone off. And by lacing his text with a cosmic mish-mash of noughties cultural references, playwright Anne Washburn beats Matt Groening at his own game.