Payne: The Stars are Fire
Jack Studio Theatre
Reviewed – 27th January 2022
“As in the first play, the drama is broken up by balletic interludes, but less successfully than formerly”
And so on to the second play of the duology The Dyer’s Hand produced by Arrows & Traps Theatre Company, written and directed by Ross McGregor. A delightful opening scene serves as a link between the two plays in which Cecilia Payne (Laurel Marks), having completed her studies at Cambridge, informs the ageing Gustav Holst (Toby Wynn-Davies) that she is about to take up a research post at Harvard; an opportunity impossible for her as a woman to achieve in the UK.
With a soundtrack of jazz and blues, and an array of American accents, we arrive in 1920s USA. The set (Designer Odin Corie) is retained from the first play but with the music room paraphernalia replaced by the scientific. Harlow Shapley (Alex Stevens) with bow tie and bravado is the director of the new Harvard astronomy department and oversees the work of historical scientists Annie Jump Cannon (Cornelia Baumann), Adelaide Ames (Lucy Ioannou), Donald Menzel (Edward Spence) and the newly arrived Cecilia Payne. There is little sense of drama in the work they do – counting and cataloguing stars – but a running gag about whether Donald can have a cookie and some stoical one-liners from Annie show there are laughs to be had. Lucy Ioannou lights up the stage as Adelaide with an effervescent performance that provides welcome colour amidst the grey. Marks continues her good work from the first play, portraying Payne as ambitious but socially awkward. When Payne makes her ground-breaking astronomical discovery, she is reduced to tears of despair by top scientist Henry Russell (Toby Wynn-Davies) when we might have hoped she would stand up to be counted. Wynn-Davies, with a desperado moustache and softly spoken drawl, brilliantly plays Russell rather closer to Bond villain than senior astronomer.
As in the first play, the drama is broken up by balletic interludes, but less successfully than formerly. An extended dance sequence mourning the tragic death of Ames distracts from the main direction of the plot. A very well created cinematic cartoon of a car journey, excellently mimed by Marks, Spence and Ioannou, provides light relief but does not fit within the style of the rest of the production.
A flash forward at the end of the play shows us Payne finally being awarded the Professorship she has long craved, and the play reinforces the well-made message that women have been held back in the field of science through centuries of male tradition and misogyny. A late scene also links the two parts of this epic undertaking with Payne and Holst reunited to reminisce on the journeys they have undergone. With it comes the opportunity to show again the on-stage chemistry existing between Wynn-Davies and Marks.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Davor @TheOcularCreative
Payne: The Stars are Fire
Jack Studio Theatre until 19th February
Payne: The Stars are Fire is part two of Arrows & Traps new repertory season: The Dyer’s Hand
Previously reviewed at this venue: