Kirsty Bushell, Nigel Cooke, Lisa Diveney, Harry McEntire, Ann Mitchell, Tanya Moodie, Tom Mothersdale, Pearce Quigley, Andrew Sheridan, Rupert Simonian, Alan Williams
The world is about to end. A cosmic string is about to slice and dice the universe and theres nothing anyone can do about it. Were all going to die.
This is the backcloth to A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, a new play by David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens.
The imminent end of everything brings the spectacularly messy Benton clan back together, to spend their last moments as a family. The five Benton brothers range in age from the terminally ill William, who may not live long enough to die along with everyone else, to teenage Philip, who is just awakening to his homosexuality knowing he will have little chance to fully experience love, intimacy, sex.
This is a family blessed with more than their fair share of secrets and dark, buried things. Some of these are allowed to surface, others remain half-submerged and murky. One of the brothers has been left raising his grandson on his own; another has drifted off onto the fringes of society and is glimpsed hobbled and begging in Euston Square. There are hints at past indiscretions and upsets, some family taint inherited from their maternal grandmother, Dority, who sought comfort from her volatile husband in the arms of a German refugee.
Much is left ambiguous and teasingly out of focus. There are sudden springs of poetry and moments of aching tenderness. Philip and Williams fleeting instance of understanding and connection sitting out in the fields of the family farm is beautifully played and a silent scene where Anne Mitchells matriarch bathes her dying son is also strange and affecting in its exposure.
As the end of the world creeps closer, time starts to slip and slide and Philip is able to see into his familys past. Yet the play allows only the slimmest of windows onto the social unravelling caused by the coming apocalypse; the characters exist in a bubble, unpunctured. The ending of life on earth feels secondary to the depiction of this single family and their complex web of stories. There is little indication of global turmoil; a skin of normality remains in place and there is always room for cheese.
Despite having three writers, the play feels – for the most part – of one voice, even though the temptation to look for the joins, to tease out favoured themes is a strong one. But for all the little flashes of magic and beauty in the writing the finished play feels as it is masking a stronger one. As it is, ideas flare up and burn out; some of the characters actions seem inexplicable (a beloved dog is killed) and some of the moments of emotional outburst feel unearned. The writing is also not that well served by Sean Holmes direction and the pacing is rather static and plodding; the characters sometimes seem to be talking at one another rather than with one another.
Most of the acting is superb, particularly from Harry McEntire, as the bright, wondering Philip, but the production as a whole feels a little awkward and unfinished, tugged, perhaps, in one too many directions.