I was not familiar with the play or writer before seeing it earlier this week at the National, to me Rocket to the Moon was a classic song by the band Runrig. So I was looking forward to finding out more, this play has been getting mixed reviews and I was pleased to be able to make my own.
The Lyttelton theatre was transformed into a New York dental surgery in the stifling heat in the 1930’s and the play focuses’ on the relationships of dentist Ben Stark. As you can see from the above poster (and the other advertising) Keeley Hawes is in it (she plays Ben Stark’s wife, Belle), for those unaware, she is a popular TV actor in the UK. In the programme under her credits there is not one theatre credit noted, I’m assuming this means she’s not done theatre before? Well to be honest it showed, I was in the stalls only a few rows back and I don’t believe her voice would have carried to the back of the Lyttelton, she also seemed to have an accent that seemed too false, “New YAAAAWWWK”. The good news was that she is actually in very little of the play. Which seems odd to promote it so much with her face, when actually her character whilst important to the plot is on stage very little. In her defense she was much better in her scene in Acts 2 and 3 (especially Act 3). Please don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t awful, but as is often the case, the “star”, was clearly not in the same league as the other actors they were sharing the stage with.
So who were the others? Ben Stark was played by Joseph Milson, who was brilliant, his characterisation was spot on, and his nuances throughout just added to an amazing performance. Ben Stark is no hero, he stumbles into his affair with the younger and attractive Cleo and bumbled around not knowing how to deal with it or what to do. The tension from this is really where the strength of the play lies, he’s also having to deal with his strident wife, pushy father in law, friends and the lecherous Willy Wax (what a great character name that is!).
The foil to Ben Stark is Cleo Lane the attractive and seemingly naive dental assistant. Played with great skill by Jessica Raine. Her interaction especially with Joseph Milson, was some of the best acting I’ve seen this year. As she too has to interact and deal with all the characters, we see her maturing, and ending up not being as naive as we at first imagined.
The supporting cast likewise give excellent performances, I really liked Peter Sullivan’s portrayal of the debt ridden and depressed Phil Cooper. The scene where he “breaks down” was really touching and acted perfectly.
I’m glad that the National Theatre promotes new work, but that it also promotes other work from the past and brings it to a fresh generation. I enjoyed this play, it took me a while to “get into it”, but the pace and story really sustained my interest. With excellent performances, it made for a good night out at the theatre.