Robert Newman: No Planet B
Show type: Misc live shows
Hurtling from 2006 to the Creation Myth of the Neanderthals (via Black Panthers, Shah of Iran, the Women's Movement, Elephant Man, Galileo and Columbus) there has never been a more epic show on the London stage than No Planet B - The History Of The World Backwards.
No Planet B - The History Of The World Backwards is a meditation upon the massive social changes which are coming to us all as a result of Peak Oil and Cimate Chaos; and a critique of European power in the world. It's also about loneliness and loss: the story of doomed lovers John and Patches in the London Blitz is passed on from historical character to character, from Thomas Hardy, to Shakespeare to Jesus.
Part play, part musical, part stand-up, this is a genre-busting dramatic piece, performed at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
Fans of Robert Newman who’ve stuck with him through his reinvention pretty much know what to expect from him by now: dense, socio-political doom-mongering, enlivened by gags and impressions, with a bit of ukulele playing thrown in.
Well, No Planet B, despite the apocalyptic connotations of its title, is something of a departure - mainly in that the anti-corporate drum-banging is played down. And there’s more ukulele. A lot more.
The premise is that as 2006 marks the end of our unsustainable civilisation, Newman will play out human history in reverse. Thus in 1900 American Indians begin a process of ethnic cleansing, ‘so relentless and ruthless that by 1492 there is not one single European living on the North American landmass’ or Nelson Mandela enters prison ‘a sweet-natured Spice Girl fan’ but emerges ‘an embittered terrorist bent on the armed overthrow of the state’.
It’s a brilliant, inspired comic device; and every good joke in the show emerges from applying this unique concept, brilliant in being both hugely ambitious yet simple to grasp.
Furthermore, it raises fundamental questions about the very nature of progress. Planes are taken out of the sky to reduce global warming, corporations are disbanded to encourage local enterprise and the world becomes a simpler, more pleasant place to live.
Of course, there are drawbacks, too. As inventions become un-invented, X-rays, radio and international phone calls become impossible. And, in the best routine of the night, the suffragette movement campaign to lose the hassle of having to work and vote, and instead stay, unpressured, at home.
Newman seems to yearn for the past, and not just as a kickback against the iniquities and environmental cataclysm of capitalism. He belongs in a different age, a travelling troubadour who wants only to wander between small settlements, entertaining with his tales, jokes and songs. This is a show that would be best performed around an intimate campfire, the music – in which he is accompanied by Diego Brown and The Good Fairy – only adds to this seductive mood.
It suits Newman, who doesn’t really fit into any modern category of entertainer. No Planet B is not really comedy, nor theatre, nor a political lecture, nor a folk music gig. Rather it combines elements of them all – and not always successfully.
While the central comic conceit is unbeatable, it’s surrounded by all manner of peripheral business that detracts from it, rather than enhancing it.
Chief among these is a sub-plot about a romance between a couple known as John and Teresa, played out against the background of war in Europe and reaching a denouement in the 1937 Guernica bombardment of the Spanish Civil War, the first (or last, with Newman’s reversed arrow of time) targeting of civilian populations in war.
The love story unfolds over the centuries, with Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare and Jesus - here a South American itinerant worker - all contributing chapters. Quite how it fits in with the main thrust of the show, though, is debatable.
The second half of the show, especially, gets bogged down in this, and Newman’s more literary aspirations, losing the comic momentum carefully built up in the first.
As mankind finally grows weary of the land, loses its intelligence and crawls back into the ocean’s depths from whence we came, you can’t help thinking: ‘Is that it?”
Like modern human civilisation itself, a show that started out so promisingly, so full of passion and ideas, got a little bit lost somewhere along the way.