The lights fade to reveal a streaming star field. Amidst the darkness, in the centre of an otherwise empty stage, stands a boxy-looking set; projected sequences play overhead, while loud sound effects bounce around. The set, though sparse, is convincing as a broken spaceship, and the projections draw in familiar references ranging from Armageddon to The Martian. A sense of darkness, of space, of danger, of relationships, of urgency and of hope is building well.
The dramatic mood at first continues, as Michael the spaceman (played by Mark Knightley) appears on stage dealing with a tragic emergency in orbit. But then, suddenly, the script delivers a confusing shift to comedy. On the night I attended, that transition was aided by the partial collapse of the flimsy set – a calamity which Knightley handled with style. But it's too late: confusion reigns, the plot is unclear, lines are lost among a muddy soundscape. This ambitious play is already weaving back and forth, like a spaceship out of control.
Fortunately, Harriet Madeley is on hand to save the day. She plays her four roles with superb delineation, and each of her characters tethers the spaceman's performance as he drifts along. Madeley delivers masterful changes in accent, timing, mood and posture; she convincingly creates each of her personas without costume changes or technical effects. All told, she plays mission controller, authoritarian leader, casual friend and ex-girlfriend, each exposing Michael's vulnerabilities and social mistakes, revealing him as an individual living in difficult times.
There are glimmers of brilliance in this work: the themes of isolation and treachery are ever-present, examined through Michael's relationships with support staff, friends and business associates. Communications with Earth are unreliable, so each interaction is neatly framed and limited. The fourth wall is periodically broken too, as the audience become attendees at a TED conference hearing a reported version of Michael's woes in orbit, or reporters absorbing a corporate view of a failed space venture.
These diversions sometimes muddle the timeline though; on the way out, I overheard more than one of my fellow audience members trying to establish what had actually gone on. The popup nature of the venue creates difficulties too, especially when it comes to reading details contained in those all-important projections.
Some of the lines yield belly-laughs, but I was still left unsure what this play is aiming for – perhaps there are just too many themes and concepts to fit coherently within an hour. Yet as a sketch of what could be, this cleverly-conceived play deserves full credit. I hope it will develop further from here, and I'd be more than happy to catch it again in a later version.