It’s that time of year again! No, I’m not talking about it being nearly Christmas (which I’m sure we’re all excited about) – I’m talking about that time of year when the third year students on York’s Writing, Directing and Performance course present to us their two modern productions. This year, the cohort has been divided into two groups to work on two plays: The Wheel by Zinnie Harris and – take a deep breath – The Cosmonaut’s Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union by David Greig. It’s the latter that’s the subject of this review, with The Wheel soon to follow. Staged in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television’s Black Box theatre and directed by James Ralph, I looked forward to seeing what he and the company had done with the play.

The Cosmonaut’s Last Message is set after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Two cosmonauts float above the earth in their craft, doing an experiment originally designed to test their stamina. However, their controllers have forgotten about them, and they’re both left to wonder what’s happening on the world below in their absence. That’s when we meet several characters connected to them, including Natasja (Katie Garnett), a daughter of one of the cosmonauts. Throughout the play, more characters surface and slowly reveal how they’re connected, and what unfolds is a narrative that conveys how we deal with love, loss and desire as a whole, no matter where we are in the world.

The text itself takes a bit of getting into: many scenes in several different locations at first appear to be disconnected, but throughout the production’s two hour duration, you gradually start to piece everything together. Once you get used to the premise of the piece, you begin to appreciate all of its values. To begin with, the acting here is top notch. Garnett is superb as the take-no-prisoners Natasja, and Josh Welch, despite a few accent slips, conveys one of her Scottish lovers with clarity. That’s something that can be said of the whole company – characters are played with complete confidence and you immediately see how well-developed they are.

The overall design of the production is, however, a tad questionable. Opting for a very minimalistic set, almost completely devoid of any furniture, allows the company to leap effortlessly from scene to scene with increasing slickness. But the trade-off for this is a lack of atmosphere. The designers brightly illuminate the audience from the start and cast a moving spotlight over them at the beginning and towards the end: we’re literally drawn into this action and feel a part of it, which makes it quite difficult for the company to create atmospheres. In fact, the Black Box almost feels like something of a vacuum from which the performers are unable to radiate out, making things feel slightly too internal at times.

Having said that, Izzy Marsh’s lighting design and Scott J. Hurley’s sound are two of the most powerful aspects of this production. Both frequently come together to construct powerful, booming moods that underpin different emotional structures and situations. For instance, when Natasja storms onto the stage with fellow lap dancer Becca Waugh, the lighting state changes from a cold neutral to a dizzyingly vibrant pink, with electronic drum and bass belted out over the top to both discomfort and engage the audience.

The quality of this third year production is superb, and it’s a fine example of the skills and talents the students have nurtured during their time here at York. This is one thought-provoking, engaging piece of theatre.

The Cosmonaut’s Last Message is staged by the University of York’s Writing, Directing and Performance students, playing at the Black Box until 28 November. For tickets and more information, see the University of York website. Photo: University of York WDP Department.