“Ebony Jonelle and George Howard have a genuine chemistry that lifts the whole production”
Matthew Gabrielli’s debut play certainly doesn’t shy away from the relevant and prevalent: Internet trolling, arguments for free speech, and cancel culture are all batted back and forth, changing hands between those that suffer and thrive under the harsh rule of social media, and those that perpetuate the worst of it.
Our troll is a giant papier-mache Punch puppet- unsurprisingly named Mr. Punch. And having spotted a selfie in which our protagonists, Sophie and Jamie, have unintentionally included a floral tribute for a dead child in the background, Mr Punch decides to try and ruin their lives.
There’s both not enough and too much being dealt with in this 90-minute straight-through. Most of the plot is fairly predictable, pointing out the injustice and cruelty of the internet, the very real effect it can have on your life. On the other hand, Gabrielli tries to touch on white privilege, sexism, classism, the ineffectiveness of the police, amongst other things, and there just isn’t time.
The use of puppets definitely adds to the production value, but it takes something away from the story itself. While I understand they facilitate a big reveal of Mr Punch’s true identity, the moment comes far too late, so there isn’t really enough time to understand him- we’re given to acknowledge that he’s a multifaceted person who’s done a lot of good, who has people he loves. But ultimately, he doesn’t seem too dissimilar to his puppet likeness.
All that said, Ebony Jonelle and George Howard have a genuine chemistry that lifts the whole production, and notwithstanding Howard’s Jamie having a slightly unbelievable character arc, their relationship rings true throughout. They’re funny and teasing, and despite being from different backgrounds, they seem to understand each other. Or at least they want to.
Delyth Evans’ stage design amounts to three lots of sheer curtains, a set of double doors, and a couple of stacking boxes. But the simplicity is quite elegant, creating various spaces and atmospheres with very little changed.
There’s a lot that’s good about this production; it’s very close to feeling important and urgent even, but the script wants a thorough going-over.
“one small step at the VAULT Festival, but it must surely be destined for a giant leap to something much bigger”
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.
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 will 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.
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.