By Hannah Kennedy
I came out of The First, by Barry McStay with direction by Emily Jenkins, and the first thing I write in my notes is ‘more space love love yes’. Given the focus on firsts within the piece, I think it’s apt to share first thoughts first.
We meet Rose and Simeon, two astronauts approaching Mars, and Aisha and Marcus, two writers crafting presidential speeches for any of several possible outcomes of this mission to the red planet. Both sets of characters are played by the enchanting pair that is Katrina Allen and David Ward.
On paper, this seems like the plot of a billion-dollar Hollywood movie. The ideas are bold and apologise for nothing. Rather than shying away from the restrictions of theatre, they grabs them with both hands and demands they obey. That said, the piece tries to tackle dozens of issues and themes such as mortality, race, sexuality, gender, death, nationality, love. This sometimes muddies the water, and the piece could be a lot more powerful if it honed in on one or two of these ideas. Each one of them has legs and, in the frame of these two parallel stories, it could be something quite special if it refocused.
However, it manages to achieve a sense of immediacy that not all science fiction works do. it’s clear the piece is not set now and yet, the discussions are all relevant to today. The conversations are universal and a wonderful exploration into humanity – the fact that a human being could be minutes from Mars and still need a hug is so beautiful and truthful.
Where the piece really shines is in the visual feast it presents, using its actors and their skills with abundance. The work that movement director Mikey Brett does with these actors is truly extraordinary; the feeling of weightlessness and space completely apparent. Paired with Jenkins’ skilful and purposeful direction, the scenes between the astronauts manage to feel simultaneously claustrophobic, and so very vast within the endlessness of space.
A shout out has to be made to the all of those involved in creating the sound, lighting and set design – TingyingDong, Lucia Sáchez Roldán, Delyth Evans and Madison Clare. The clinical white of the set offset by the lighting’s various colours, and Mars always looming in the background in its red glory, really is extraordinary.
Though it doesn’t tackle anything super-out-of-the-ordinary in terms of ideas and suffers from a bit of bloating in some places, the thing that sets it apart from the rest is the focus on humanity and the amazing work that Jenkins and her team have done to create outer space under the streets of London.
The First runs through 16 February.
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