Review – A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, Lyric Hammersmith

Thursday 13 May 2010

Take three highly regarded playwrights. One play. A live poodle (subject to availability, it’s different dogs on different nights), a penny-farthing, scones and cream noshing and on-stage washing that goes way beyond the hair. Even Phil wasn’t around to see Mary Martin wash that man right out of her hair and he happily marked up yet another first: Naked Man Is Flannelled Down In Tin Bath By His Mother.

How the Whingers could empathise with the challenges of this collaborative writing effort. Who takes the reins, they wondered? Andrew usually demands the final say with the Whingers but that is because he is usually right (you see! Guess who added that? See how I suffer?-Phil). Yes, for those of you who ask, it’s the only time you’re likely to see Andrew wearing (the) trousers.

But this effort goes way beyond the genesis of the Whingers: David Eldridge (Under the Blue Sky, Festen), Robert Holman (many things we’ve never seen), and Simon Stephens (Harper Regan, Punk Rock) have been working on A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky since 2002 when they started writing it on a roll of wallpaper.

Which beggars the Whingers to ask, what sort of wallpaper? Anaglypta? Flock? Perhaps it’s the way forward as unusual alliances steal the headlines. Perhaps Dave and Nick could plan their strategy on easy-to-wipe-clean vinyl for when the disputes start.

But in the case of ATSEITS (great title for a play, but an even better one for a charity gala at The Royal Albert Hall) our Big Three ask:

If it were all to end…
  1. Where would you go?
  2. Who would you see?
  3. What would you do?

Good questions. And it did make the Whingers think. With the end of the world imminent, would we – like the characters portrayed here – eat Spanish cheese? NO. We would choose something a bit tastier like a Stilton or a Saint Augur. Would we turn down an offer of alcohol as our planet takes its final cutain call (that one was rhetorical)? Would we finally get round to writing our own play knowing that no one would be able to see it and tell us it’s utter twaddle?

No, we would probably be gathered round a computer watching Carol Channing dancing on a xylophone over and over again.  In the unlikely event that we ever tired of that we might watch her acrobatic act with the Bernini Brothers until the world ended.

But it turns out that the correct answers to those three questions are:

  1. To the family home
  2. Your family
  3. Talk to your family a lot and eat some mancego.

For Eldridge/Holman/Stephens aren’t really dealing with the mundane and trivial matters that would occupy the Whingers’ final thoughts. Their take is of a more abstract, human and poetic matter and in this play various members of a fractured family come together deal with issues, bury a few ghosts and unearth a few literal ones along the way.

The trouble is the Whingers are more prosaically minded and spent the whole evening being unconvinced by the detail: how in the name of Bob Crow can trains still be running when they barely keep going in normal circumstances? Would mobile phones still work? Surely there would be no power? If there was power, why use a tin bath and a jug of water? Would people really turn up to work to keep society going as long as possible? Would the thousands of smart bachelor gentlemen who look down their noses at the Whingers at Selfridge’s really have nothing better to do than turn up to work each day? Why would you kill your dog?

And why does everyone seem so calm? Is there no anarchy? Apparently one man did defecate on the perfume counter at Selfridge’s and one of the characters killed him with a knife, but apart from that and a little dope smoking lawlessness doesn’t get a look-in. Even the tea shops are open.

The end-of-the-world theme is a bit of a mixed blessing of an idea for our authors. On the one hand, it’s a compelling starting point, on the other hand when it actually comes  it consists of about 50 or so naked light-bulbs and had they chosen an event less dramatic – say the only solar eclipse in our lifetime – they might have created less apocalyptic expectations (and it would not have required much in the way of re-writing at all). To be fair there are probably only 50 light-bulbs in the set because they don’t make them any more and Phil has stock-piled 90% of the UK’s remaining bulbs in his spare room.

Despite all this, if you didn’t know it would be hard to spot three different minds working on a single piece. This doesn’t come across as writing by committee – they have found a collective voice and a shorter version in a more intimate theatre (the Arcola) might have been quite moving.

Still, this collaborative working is not something we can endorse. For if they hadn’t all been working on the this play, one of them might have come up instead with the brilliant new whodunnit that the Whingers are always fantasising someone will write.

As for the cast: the Whingers have no wish to blight the future career of the absurdly young Harry McEntire (Punk Rock, Spring Awakening) but he really is excellent as knowing schoolboy Philip – a face to watch. He’s also a ray of sunshine – especially compared to the other characters who are utterly, 100%  miserable. We have to say that director Sean Holmes doesn’t help matters with the relentlessly ponderous pace.

Still, looking on the bright side: there was sex on stage (the same “the man pulls the back of his underpants down to show his bottom” approach to copulation pioneered in Spring Awakening), the folding of (admittedly ghastly) bedsheets live on stage, an electric fence which goes bang, quince jam and a penny-farthing (sadly only pushed, not ridden).


Two out of Five: slightly corked or vinegary

8 Responses to “Review – A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, Lyric Hammersmith”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    SWEET you totally saved me a trip to Hammersmith and long voyage home. Thanks guys!

  2. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    On the plus side Webcowgirl there is a character referred to as “Aunt Harriet” which made Phil recall the iconic Sixties TV series Batman with great fondness.

  3. Orion Hunt Says:

    You two are much kinder than I was. This was the worst thing I have ever seen. And not just on stage. I’m off to watch Carol on the xylophone to cheer myself up.

  4. Orion Hunt Says:

    (Should say though, that I love reading your stuff!)

  5. Suzie Bee Says:

    I’m still intrigued by this collaborative writing process. I’m always interested as to how equal and communicative collaborations are. Do they sit in a room and write together or do they all write separately and knit it together?

  6. dillip Says:

    Agreed, it was ghastly, a pretentious bore.

  7. Martin Baker Says:

    It didn’t start well – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Lyric so quiet before a performance. It was as if the end of the world had already happened.

    Seemed a shame that such an interesting premise could result in such nonsense of a script. The young guys were good but the was some highly dubious acting from some other cast members.

    My highlight? The live-dog-on-stage-moment and I don’t even like dogs.

  8. Drewster Says:

    In there somewhere is a great play fighting to get out of a stilted production, the design was so ugly and helped no one on that stage look like they wanted to be there – Pearce Quigley acted like he had already died and been replaced by a robot.

    The women were all good although Tanya Moodie was all over the place but gave the best a count of how not to break bad news I have ever witnesses and got the biggest laugh of the evening (apart from the girls in the back row sitting with Nav Choudry when laughing at Ann Mitchell lifting William’s penis to wash it!) and why the hell is Kirsty Bushell not a huge star she was mesmeric as the manic Nicola – everything she did on stage conveyed the characters need for love from her father.

    The main problem for me was I knew how it would end from the first scene, and there were no surprises in any of the ‘revelations’. When you see 100’s of light bulbs suspended in the air at a show with stars in the title you just know the designer needs a holiday or to rethink their career choice.

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