Now I would never label myself a sci-fi nut, but Pioneer was one of the best things that I have seen in the last twelve months. It is an outstanding show, both in concept and execution that I would recommend to my theatre buff housemate and philistine great-aunt alike.
Double Fringe First winners curious directive turns Shoreditch Town Hall into a realm where interplanetary space travel is possible, but what makes it most engaging, enjoyable and impressive is its grasp on the emotional weight of human relationships. This is not blue sky thinking, but is an interpretation of a possible future that is grounded in reality by its core understanding of the way that humans complete each other.
The year is 2029, and Ghara – an international corporation run by an elderly Indian billionaire known as Mrs Singh – is sending humans to Mars. Over the course of the play we see astronauts coping with and travelling to the red planet, as well as others on Earth coping with the current, future and past ramifications of contemporary space travel. Everyone has their ambitions for humanity, and each ambition has the potential to elevate our species into true greatness, but they’re all held back by an equally natural inability to ignore a human connection that will prevent them from obtaining that goal.
We enter the space to find the stage covered in a white sheet that leads upstage to an infinity curve, splattered with geometric arcs and marks. For set, the space is dominated by what might be described as three giant holes – boxes about eight feet tall and wide, two feet deep, but with a great oculus cut into them. They aren’t just a sight to behold however; they have Swiss Army knife utility and facilitate the flow of the play, shape our view on events, and allow for a fully-integrated multimedia approach.
The theme of human endeavour versus human relationships is undeniably strong. Mrs Singh will pull the plug on the Mars expedition even at the last second if she sees evidence that the astronauts’ relationships cannot withstand the burden of their task. All this is linked beautifully to the brothers Alyosha (James Hardy) and Ivan (Jesse Briton), road-tripping across Siberia. They too are enraptured by cosmology. Alyosha looks to the future, to an astrophysics PhD in the US; Ivan to the past, convincing his brother to pilgrimage a thousand miles across the desert in search of the gulag that once imprisoned their grandfather, an apparent godfather to the Russian space programme. Astronaut husband and wife Oskar and Imke (Flora Denman) meanwhile are already settled on Mars, but Oskar has been missing for hours. Imke risks jeopardising the entire programme by searching for him, but is that enough to stop her?
If you are looking for theatre that presents an array of beautifully written human relationships, which has gambled ambitiously on a concept that is still rooted in its narrative, and puts forwards ideas that are worth a good few hours chewing in the pub afterwards, then go to see this show. I certainly left feeling that everyone who doesn’t see it is missing out on something quite special.
Pioneer plays at Shoreditch Town Hall until 22 April, before continuing on tour to Plymouth and Sheffield. For tickets and more information, see the Shoreditch Town Hall website.