Review: Fireworks, Vault Festival

 Heading up the stairs and along the walkway towards the river Thames and Charing Cross Station, you pass the south side of the Royal Festival Hall. If you pause at the top of the stairs, you will spot a bust of South African anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela.

But is Mandela dead or alive? Does C-3PO have a gold or a silver leg? Does the Monopoly man wear a monocle? And will the Large Hadron Collider at CERN be successful in discovering the God particle or will it create a massive black hole and kill us all?

It’s September 2008 and the Large Hadron Collider has been switched on for the first time. And it’s April 2012, and CERN is readying itself to start up the Large Hadron Collider for a second time. 

Alex Robins’ new play Fireworks switches between these two timelines, delving into the situation from two separate angles, that of conspiracy theorist Drew (James Murphy-Stevens), fuelled by the fearmongering tabloids predicting the end of the world, and scientist River (Gráinne O’Mahony), excited by the prospect of discovery.

When we first meet River it’s 2008 and she is at a music festival, although she would much rather be at CERN in Switzerland. To take her mind off things, she accepts a random pill. However, her emotions quickly change from euphoria to paranoia and, as she rushes to flee the festival, she bumps into Drew who, to escape his dreary job, is breaking into the festival to watch the fireworks.

This more linear story gives us a good introduction to both characters, although the focus is more strongly on exploring Drew’s background and motivations rather than River’s.  

In 2012, we meet River and Drew again, who have turned to online streaming to share their views with very different goals in mind. These interspersed science lessons are where the dynamics of the performance really come into play. Drew and River pass the ball back and forth to each other, often finishing the other’s sentence, as the audience is whisked from thought to opposing thought.

O’Mahony and Murphy-Stevens never miss a beat, rotating around each other, always avoiding actually colliding. Murphy-Stevens gives Drew a certain sweetness; there is a lost look to him as he scrambles to find more proof for his theories. His speech becomes faster as the web of red twine snakes across his pinboard, connecting Nelson Mandela with the Monopoly man.

As River, O’Mahony moves from relaying her bad trip, displaying a split lip and bleeding mouth to Drew in a drunkenly childlike way, to being a passionate teacher, confidence slowly dwindling as her viewer numbers drop.    

By setting the play in the round, director Jack Bradfield has physically separated the audience, creating two sides, while Robins’s writing, creating a fast back-and-forth of monologues, means we sometimes have to pick either Drew or River to listen to. Set within the round is a ring of blinking lights, which changes colour depending on which actor is standing in it and moves at different speeds as the narrative ramps up and the actors pace around the circle.

Fireworks is a new piece of experimental writing which, through humour and clever pacing, immerses the audience as the connection between characters changes and they move towards and away from each other. The actors manage the dance in the round with ease, slowly becoming closer, pondering their existence, before they come together for one big bang. 

Fireworks was playing at the Vault Festival from 14-15 March. For more information, see the Vault Festival website.