Review – Rocket to the Moon, National Theatre

Tuesday 29 March 2011

It’s astonishing what you can pick up at the theatre. For instance: Phil, who sleeps on his face (insert your own gag here), had no idea it was bad for him.

Along with sucking pacifiers (insert second own gag here) it is apparently one of the “enemies of a beautiful mouth”. It’s far too late for the Whingers which could explain why they cover their faces for photo opportunities.

But if any of you younger people  turn up at Dr Stark’s (Joseph Millson) 1930s New York dental practice you should heed these and other warnings on the marvellous posters which adorn the walls of the waiting room.

Mind you, it’s unlikely that you will because it’s a play. And also because Dr Stark has very few patients: just one in the nigh-on-three-hours the Whingers spent there.

Yet Stark is always staying late “working”. What could he be doing? If you were his wife you might think he was having an affair.

Stark’s a nice man but a bit of a ditherer and having something of a mid-life crisis at 40 (if 40 is mid-life then Andrew and Phil are in, respectively, the autumn and winters of their lives) and slightly grudgingly married to his pushy, bossy wife Belle (Keeley Hawes).

His father-in-law, Mr Prince (Nicholas Woodeson), encourages him to take the metaphorical and titular Rocket to the Moon and aim for something worthwhile in his life. It is advice that Stark resists by nature but then he falls for his young dental assistant Cleo Singer (Jessica Raine)…

It is no big surprise everyone loves Cleo: Raine is hilarious and delightful and appears to have teetered and wiggled into Clifford Odets’ 1938 play from a Kaufman and Hart comedy, yet she skilfully balances the dumb blonde routine with a vulnerability that enables her to pull it off in a very Judy Holliday kind of way. It’s a brave choice and we think it will stick in certain gullets but frankly without it the evening would have been much duller. Anyway, also popping in from another genre is Woodeson’s Mr Prince who might have escaped from a Tennessee Williams play. And just to complicate things, Mr Price would also like to carry on with Cleo.

Millson is terrific as the seemingly ineffectual Stark. He has perfected the art of a nervous smile and curled top lip. The only problem is one of plausibility: it simply doesn’t make sense that he doesn’t have any patients: why aren’t people queueing up to be drilled and filled by such an easy-on-the-eye practitioner? All fears of lying in a dentist’s chair exposing ones cavities would quickly be assuaged by the charming Mister Millson.

If novocaine seemed to have been injected into the opening moments it soon wears off and Angus Jackson’s production builds gently to become very engaging. The cast are all rather good.  Hawes makes an impressive stage debut and sports her striking millinery with aplomb. Millson and Raine are outstanding. The set by Anthony Ward, effectively lit by Mark Henderson, is agreeably convincing with rain in the last scene, though the period detail of the surgery is only tantalisingly visible through blinds. Frustrating.

All very polished.


The National Theatre has finally introduced a pre-show announcement about switching off mobile phones. Hurrah! Let’s hope the other theatres that still don’t do this follow suit. Phil, who switches off in the theatre religiously, hadn’t on this occasion and so was relieved to be reminded. Not that anyone would have called.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied


11 Responses to “Review – Rocket to the Moon, National Theatre”

    • Michael Grinter Says:

      She had strong moments, I think, but she used her hands and arms too much. There were a couple of lines that she didn’t seem to get and her walk off stage as she left the surgery was just silly.


  1. Michael Says:

    Sitting among a group of New Yorkers at this production was interesting – they found the accents (which admittedly require work) so jarring that two of them left at the interval unable to take it any longer. The New York drama student sitting next to me said it was the worst production of Odets that she had ever seen. My question is why is our National Theatre (no longer a centre of excellence I fear) producing a second string play – Odets wrote much better drama than this. As to this production – there was no atmosphere at all, it is a heat wave in New York at the end of the Depression – all we get is words words words never a whiff of why everyone is full of angst – the relationships have not been resolved satisfactorily – thus a mediocre play is offered in a vacuum which renders it just short of tedious – all in all a pretty disappointing, disillusioning evening. Maybe the Arts Council should take a look at the level of grant! Not a whiff of Poor Theatre here!!!

  2. maggiemobbs Says:

    I went to the 2nd night preview. Having read a post on NT’s f/b page saying lst night ‘sadly spoilt by completely inadequate sound’ with people queueing for earphones in the interval. I nervously enquired to the NT about this; they replied assuring me that they had addressed the problem in an afternoon ‘technical rehearsal session. However, I was in front circle centre, and at times couldn’t make out what was being said, but not by all of the actors. The lovely Jessica Raine came through loud with diction clear! Keeley Hawes at times hard to hear was as alwaysl easy on the eye! From her body language though, she looked liked she really didn’t want to be there, and after a while neither did I. This play left me cold, like the auditorium. It was a chilly evening all round. I knew nothing of Mr Odets play, why would I, it’s about a dentist for christ sake!..and not a very good one at that! When I was leaving the auditorium people coming down the stairs behind me were saying they couldn’t hear the play well. I reported back to the NT!
    I’ll be honest I went for the cast and the fact that the National has been putting on some stellar performances recently…I don’t think I need to say more!

  3. maggiemobbs Says:

    Oh Yes I do!….p.s. NT..Why?

  4. maggiemobbs Says:

    I want to say something about your footnote regarding mobile phones.
    At the matinee performance of Ecstacy at the Hampstead theatre yesterday, which you will no doubt be reviewing when it makes it appearance at the Duchess, right near the very end scene where all is quiet and very moving, a bloody mobile started tringing! Astounding!
    I have emailed them today to ask them to do as the National. It is easier for them, a member of staff stands at each small entrance and could easily tell everyone in the 350 seater theatre to switch off!

  5. sandown Says:

    It was very inconsiderate of someone to leave their mobile phone on during the latter part of the play “Ecstasy” (spelling, please) at the Hampstead. No doubt the audience was jolted awake.

    Having to sit through an hour and forty minutes of on-stage drunken maundering, one needs a bit of a snooze.

  6. Boz Says:

    Regardless of the quality of the play or how well performed, I have added Keeley Hawes to the list of people to be adored. When she took her bow she gave a wonderful and friendly ‘this is just for you’ smile and look to a little boy in the front row, a few seats along from me, who was being taken to the theatre by his grandparents.

    I know. I’m too soft.

  7. Belatedly caught up with this yesterday, well into it’s run, and what a splendid play/production it proved to be – an Odets revelation, so much better than that Country Girl from last year. The Whingers praises were spot on, but in response to the grouses above, a would add that a New Yorker sitting next to us thought the accents fine and the sound was no problem. Another case of improvements made during previews I suppose? I was disappointed to see the Lyttelton Stalls barely 40% full – what crazy people are avoiding this delight? Get thee to the Lyttelton without delay – highly recommended.

  8. Richard Lee Says:

    So good to find a positive review for this among the pile of curmudgeonly posts when it opened. Congratulations to the NT et al for unearthing it and doing it justice.

  9. John Peniket Says:

    I must be one of the last people to see this show and I hdn’t read these comments before I went. Last night (7/6/11) Keeley Hawes was very difficult to hear from Row D of the stalls and what I could pick out of ther accent seemed to drift from southern drawl through Bronx to RP. I thought it was not a patch (as a play or as a production) on last year’s “Country Girl” with Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove and certainly had no sense of the atmosphere of a sweltering New York.

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