For thousands of years, people have looked up at the night sky and made up stories about the shapes they saw in the stars. Niall McCarthy’s debut piece Star Fish follows such a conversation between two best friends, the night after one has fallen out with his dad.
Traversing horoscopes, personality types, destiny and connections, Mahsa Hammat Bahary’s Laura and Aiden Nord’s Dan certainly cover a lot of ground in their conversation. The result is a piece which is thoughtful and touching, but flows with a dreamlike quality, which shrouds it in a certain vagueness. Perhaps this is intentional, a deliberate parallel to the newspaper horoscopes which Dan dismisses as “too non-specific to really reveal anything truthful”. However, at times it leaves the audience guessing as to what the relationship between these two characters is exactly, and what they want, both for themselves and for each other. For example, it’s unclear whether their connection is platonic or romantic, and while maybe this ‘will-they-won’t-they’ dynamic, again, could be a deliberate choice, in a piece where big ideas are being explored, an audience needs some concrete facts about the characters to ground what they’re saying in some sort of reality.
We know so little about Dan and Laura’s past and relationship that it’s difficult to really connect with their conversation on an emotional level. McCarthy is clearly a thoughtful writer, and the ideas he delves into in Star Fish are handled in a delicate and balanced way; it’s satisfying watching Dan and Laura head up each side of a debate about whether starsigns define us as people, as they contradict one another and butt heads. However, because we know so little about the nature of their relationship, the circumstances that they are in and about Laura in particular, it’s difficult to connect with them as characters.
I think the difficulty with Star Fish is that it focuses so hard on representing the duality of these characters, as a parallel to the Pisces constellation, we lose a sense of who they are as individuals. After the first few minutes, it becomes an established pattern in the piece that Dan will make a point or a statement about how he feels about something, Laura will provide a counter-argument, and this will repeat. The issue here is that Laura’s character is never fully explored as anything, other than a foil to Dan.
Although they are compared to Pisces in the sense that they are in theory two halves of one whole, learning to push and pull together, the reality is that Laura is the one doing a lot of the hard work. For example, Dan mentions that he desperately wants to move out, but he can’t explain why or where to, simply that there’s “something better out there”. Laura is then left to not only tease out of him what he means, but also then take on the role of explaining to Dan how his dad must feel about their argument. There is a lot of emotional labour going on, which isn’t really reciprocated, because at no point do we see Dan comfort or challenge Laura in the same way she selflessly does for him.
There are definitely some thoughtful musings on the nature of fate and the search for identity that I’d like to see expanded upon. It’s clear that McCarthy shows promise as a writer, if this debut is anything to go by, but this piece hasn’t quite managed to hit the balanced relationship that it seems to be aiming for. Writing two characters who are perfectly, evenly balanced in terms of their personalities and ways of thinking is a difficult feat, even for a seasoned writer, so it’s impressive that McCarthy has managed to capture the joy and tenderness of those rare, sincere friendships in an early work.
There are big ideas at play in Star Fish, but with a little more emotional exploration, this good piece of theatre could really become something special.
Star Fish is playing as part of the 10 Minutes To Call Home digital programme until 31 October. For more information and to stream, visit Live Theatre online.