I'll start this review with a confession: I'm not a fan of Bruce Springsteen. I don't mean that I'm actively against him; I just mean that I'm not a follower, not an expert, not obsessed. Which is what sets me apart from "Major" Tom, the likeable protagonist of this one-man show, whose single-minded fascination with The Boss proves the unlikely ticket to the trip of a lifetime… a five-year mission to Mars.
Space travel seems to be a theme at the Vault Festival this year – perhaps it's Tim Peake who's made astronauts glamorous again – yet Tom, a nice but nondescript man with a habit of neglecting his friends, makes for an unlikely hero. He's been chosen, in fact, for his very ordinariness, in every regard except one. His obsession with Springsteen is delicately pitched; it's never extreme or overbearing, but it comes through in occasional telling details, like the way he and his girlfriend seems to think they're on first-name terms with a global legend.
Since winning his slot on the Mars mission, Tom's learned a lot about space travel, and he's eager we should learn it too. How a rocket works, why a satellite stays in orbit, what caused the Columbia disaster: the facts just keep on coming, delivered directly to the audience in the style of a friendly lecture. The plot offers only the thinnest of justifications for these chunky tutorials, and while actor Tom Moores is engaging enough to carry them off, I did sometimes wonder if I'd blundered into a science festival instead of a play.
Moores' self-penned script also orbits around several themes without quite landing on any of them. There's a lesson somewhere about humility – about not letting a lucky break go to your head – but it's expressed more through a couple of isolated incidents than as a fully-developed character arc. There's also an interesting point about what makes people extraordinary, and whether our worth is defined not by who we are but by the things we do. Yet this too is a little under-baked and, in consequence, the moralising conclusion felt didactic and heavy-handed to me.
Moores' natural charisma works just as well on film as it does in the flesh, and one of the play's most memorable sequences is projected on screen rather than acted on stage: a cleverly-conceived selfie video, chronicling a drunken night at a Springsteen gig. But the frequent conversations with recorded voices didn't work quite so well. Some last-minute technical problems may explain a certain lack of tightness, but it's fearsomely difficult to keep such exchanges sharp and, here, the artifice behind them was too obviously on display.
The plot is surprisingly believable – and the script's assorted themes are neatly woven into the story – but for me, the experience as a whole lacked clarity: with too many concepts competing for my attention, none of them properly fixed in my mind. But Major Tom is certainly an enjoyable play, sprinkled with unexpected humour, and in Moores' hands Tom is a character I want to get to know. A few small changes in trajectory could see this interesting production take off.