The First (Pit, VAULT Festival, until February 16th)
You would hardly expect one of the small venues at the VAULT Festival to host an epic but Barry McStay’s The First offers a space odyssey that deserves a universe of stars.
This 60-minute two-hander features two astronauts on the first crewed space mission to Mars hoping to make history. Back home a war of the words breaks out about the Martian expedition, with two writers battling to produce a speech suitable for the US President to praise its success – and another to deliver should it fail.
The play was inspired by the famous speech given by President Nixon when Apollo 11 saw the first men land on the Moon in 1969 and the alternative version which praised the crew’s sacrifice in the event of a fatality – much in the news over the 50th anniversary of the mission last year – which spoke of humanity looking up at the moon in the future knowing, “that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
McStay’s rich and heart-stirring script probes a possible future scenario that feels all too real and credible with its clever parallel dramas of the eager astronauts discovering things starting to go wrong with their vessel only days away from touchdown on the Red Planet and two imaginative writers tussling with words of triumph or remorse.
In just an hour the tightly-written play manages to consider heroism, positivity in the face of danger, a depth of human relationships, coping with tragedy and humanity’s innate desire to explore beyond frontiers.
Playing all four roles are Katrina Allen and Daniel Ward, with barely a heartbeat marking the switch from the space travellers to the writers. Multi-role playing is never easy, but the two actors manage it effortlessly.
Allen is the all-American no-nonsense astronaut Rose who envisages her face being carved on the side of a mountain to commemorate her fame. She gave up a boyfriend in favour of making the trip and Allen captures this personal sacrifice alongside the excitement the character feels at being a pioneer.
Her colleague on-board is the gay black Englishman Simeon, who Ward plays with authority. His wake-up music on the ship is the theme to “2001” (hers is Europe’s “The Final Countdown”) and he wants a school named after him . There are some fabulous moments where the pair discuss the fact that everything they do on Mars with be “the first…” yet both recognise the emotional effects of knowing that no other human beings have ever been so far apart from other humans. In space, no-one can hear you dream.
Ward is also the brash and experienced political hack Marcus, forced to work on the two possible scripts with celebrated screenwriter Alisha (Allen), whose successful TV show has just been cancelled by the network.
Allen and Ward work together splendidly throughout, arguing a liberal vs conservative political agenda while developing a grudging respect for one another as the writers and keeping spaceboots solidly on terra firma as the trailblazing astronauts.
Director Emily Jenkins makes every second count, keeping an energetic pace without losing important moments of silence and reflection. Movement director Mikey Brett manages to make the astronauts look weightless, with adroit use of minimal props and set (Delyth Evans’ two tables and two chairs are skilfully utilised on an appropriately claustrophobic traverse stage with a large red disc on one wall representing Mars).
The First is one small step at the VAULT Festival, but it must surely be destined for a giant leap to something much bigger with a potential stage or screen production that will be out of this world.
Images, Alessandra Davison
A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls http://www.thespyinthestalls.com/