Space Play, VAULT Festival

by guest critic Michael Davis

In recent years, tales of space travel have been making more of an appearence in theatre. While the Royal Court showcased Alistair McDowall’s X last year, the Fringe scene has had mature, high-quality productions of its own – including Emily Holyoake’s Stasis and Curious Directive’s Pioneer. Space Play, which has been running at the VAULT Festival, looks at the aftermath of orbital collision with space debris, inspired by the events of the film Gravity.

The only survivor on the mission is Michael Damon (Mark Knightley), someone who never  trained to be an astronaut. He is only an artist and as the mission is a commercial venture run by a company headed by Magnolia (Harriet Madeley); the criteria for personnel is of a more flexible nature. Damon certainly doesn’t have the right stuff that 20th century test pilots and Apollo mission astronauts had. He desperately wants to make contact with the Earth – so that he can impress his ex-girlfriend.

When the play begins, it initially shows footage of two very different films involving space travel: 2001 A Space Odyssey and Armageddon. Inwardly I groaned. Did this mean they were going for something that had moments of brilliance, but for the most part unintelligible? Or could we expect the other extreme: a subpar, cliché-ridden tale, with an irritating song from Aerosmith? Thankfully, the footage was in some ways a form of misdirection and Space Play itself manages to at least follow its own path.

While Knightley is very believable as the hapless Damon, it is Madeley (who plays Sophie, ex-girlfriend Nikki and Magnolia) who one remembers, playing three very distinct female roles –  their only similarity, they are not afraid to act.

While Space Play‘s set design and projections punch above their weight (provided by Lauren Pratt and Martin Dewar respectively), what saves this production from being all style and no substance is its propensity to subvert expectations. Asides from having a leading character with very few likeable or redeeming qualities, the notion of future space travel operating on the same ethics of major corporations is a chilling one. In this scenario ‘Major Tom’ has been stitched up by a multinational conglomerate, who treats human life as cheap and expendable.

Space Play runs through 29 January.

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