Tag Archives: Ross McGregor

PAYNE: THE STARS ARE FIRE

Payne: The Stars are Fire

★★★

Jack Studio Theatre

PAYNE: THE STARS ARE FIRE

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:
Holst: The Music in the Spheres | ★★★★★ | January 2022

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews

 

Holst: The Music In The Spheres

Holst: The Music In The Spheres

★★★★★

Jack Studio Theatre

Holst: The Music In The Spheres

Holst: The Music In The Spheres

Jack Studio Theatre

Reviewed – 20th January 2022

★★★★★

 

“Wynn-Davies’ performance is energetic, dynamic, forceful and totally engaging throughout”

 

This ambitious play, written and directed by Ross McGregor, is the first part of a duology The Dyer’s Hand produced by Arrows & Traps Theatre Company. The title is taken from a Shakespeare sonnet and used by Cecilia Payne in her memoirs, and the two individual but interlinked plays are being performed on alternate nights.

The set (Designer Odin Corie) is a simple studio containing a large desk. Some sheets of manuscript paper, a music stand, and a lone violin indicate that this is composer Gustav Holst’s study. On the other side of the stage is the desk of schoolgirl Cecilia Payne. Music on one side, science on the other and a large void lies in between. And this is to be the crux of the matter: what is more important, music or science?

Flashbacks in the narrative are indicated with titles projected onto a screen in the style of a silent movie whilst figures from the past appear behind the gauze.

Ever present on stage is Gustav Holst (Toby Wynn-Davies) and Wynn-Davies’ performance is energetic, dynamic, forceful and totally engaging throughout. If I wondered whether a story about Holst could carry the weight of an evening’s entertainment, Wynn-Davies wins me over. We see Holst’s insecurities caused by the abuse of a domineering father, his physical pain from neuritis, and the frustration caused by his poor sight. And then we become engaged in the strength of Holst’s conviction in education – not just for the privileged few but for ordinary working people, his love for Isobel despite his innate shyness, and most of all his absorbing passion for the music itself.

McGregor’s play alternates scenes of dialogue with quasi-balletic interludes to the music of Holst’s Planets (Sound Designer Kristina Kapilin). This brave but ingenious technique allows us to hear the music evolving inside Holst’s head and provides us with absorbing ensemble scenes involving movement, mime and physical theatre. The most successful of these are a nightmare in which Holst is berated by his father and stepmother to the rhythms of Mars, the Bringer of War; and the culmination of the evening in which a solo Holst, totally enraptured by his music, breaks down into both laughter and tears as he conducts the theme of Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. Once again, Wynn-Davies’ performance is extraordinary.

A crucial element of this five-star production is the beautiful performance by Laurel Marks as Cecilia Payne. We are going to see much more of this character in the second play but here she is introduced as a friendless and troubled schoolgirl but possessing an astute mind and extraordinary intelligence. Marks is totally convincing as she explains ideas and concepts far above that of an average teenager and the mutual understanding that develops between Holst and Payne is the thread that holds the play together.

The supporting cast are all excellent. Edward Spence gives an effervescent and lively performance as fellow composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Lucy Ioannou excels as both hifalutin school head Frances Gray and supportive aunt Benigna Holst. Alex Stevens is Gustav Holst’s domineering father Adolph, lively student friend Fritz Hart, and working-class musician Sydney Bressey. Cornelia Baumann shows us love and understanding as Holst’s wife-to-be Isobel Harrison and less of both as stepmother Mary Thorley-Stone.

One memorable scene in which Holst justifies the place of music in a school’s curriculum should be recorded and sent to school governors across the land. It is a coherent piece of writing, passionately performed and totally convincing in its argument.

 

Reviewed by Phillip Money

Photography by Davor @TheOcularCreative

 


Holst: The Music In The Spheres

Jack Studio Theatre until 19th February

The Music In The Spheres is part one of Arrows & Traps new repertory season: The Dyer’s Hand

 

Reviewed at this venue last year:
Trestle | ★★★ | June 2021

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews