On the way out of the theatre tonight I said to Andy that with some plays, regardless of whether I liked them or not, when it comes to writing a review I have no idea where to start. So I'll start with the show's unique selling point: Each an established playwright in his own right, David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens have been working together on A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky for about 8 years. On one level it's a play about a family coming together in a time of crisis, but the crisis here is the biggest one conceivable: In three weeks' time, around Midnight on Saturday night, an astronomical event called Cosmic String will arrive on Earth. It's the end of the Universe, and everyone knows exactly when it's going to happen. The focus is one large family who've grown apart over the years - Margaret (Ann Mitchell) has five sons, the oldest of whom, William, (Nigel Cooke) has terminal cancer of the colon and is hoping he can survive just long enough to die with the rest of the family, in a field at their pig farm, watching the lights go out in the sky.
It's a peculiar play, not just in its subject-matter but in its tone. Sean Holmes' production has a hypnotic quality, and isn't afraid to use silence, notably in a scene where Margaret bathes her dying son with almost no dialogue. Elsewhere though the dialogue is very relevant to the mood as it has a very lyrical quality, often giving the impression of blank verse. One conceit of the show is that, although everyone's terrified about their impending deaths, there's a general stoicism, and even the trains keep running until a day before the apocalypse. I was starting to wonder at the total lack of acknowledgement that there would be riots etc but this became increasingly irrelevant because it becomes clear, as the show goes on, that realism is being left behind and there's a lot of surreal, supernatural touches - beginning when different characters experience time in different ways. The family's youngest son Philip is much, much younger than his brothers, having been a surprise conception when their mother was almost 60. He's played by Harry McEntire, a regular at the Lyric after Spring Awakening and Simon Stephens' own Punk Rock, and it becomes apparent why they cast someone they felt they could rely on as the role is the most central one. He's certainly at the heart of the paranormal scenes, sharing a psychic link with the nephew he's never met, communicating with ghosts and seeming to have knowledge of what's in other people's minds. By the end the tone is so odd that you're not entirely sure which characters on stage are really there and which are parts of someone's imagination.
I suspect it's not really coming across but both of us really enjoyed this - although where Andy thought the play fell apart a bit near the end I thought that was where it really came into itself. For me there was an extra source of occasional amusement: Although I only met him once or twice there, Dave Eldridge was in the year above me on the Drama course at Exeter University, and the play has several references to the city and the students there, as well as a University scarf featuring prominently among the costumes.
So it's an unusual play but worth a look, and one thing Andy and I agreed on was that it's not quite the two hours of doom and gloom that some reviews have painted it as. I mean don't get me wrong, you shouldn't expect everyone to break into song and dance, but despite the constant presence of death in the story this is more dream play than kitchen sink drama.
A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky by David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens is booking until the 5th of June at the Lyric Hammersmith.