Review: The First, VAULT Festival

Space travel – a concept which either excites or terrifies, or perhaps such a feat encourages a combination of the two. Equally, a play about space travel in a fringe venue inspires a similar emotional response; how can the sheer enormity of this storyline be truly explored in a 78 seater theatre? Tonight’s performance answers my aforementioned doubts by presenting a piece which chooses to focus on humanity, even in a place no human has ever ventured. 

The First tells two stories, millions of miles apart, brought together by their roles in the first mission to Mars. One pair are the astronauts taking on this historic mission, the other pair are writers penning separate speeches in preparation for the currently unknown outcome of this expedition. 

Barry McStay’s script brings this interstellar adventure back down to earth. Its poetry doesn’t come from reaching for intergalactic metaphors, it simply illustrates the fascinating outcome of the collision between ordinary people and extraordinary events. The dialogue between the astronauts isn’t bogged down with scientific detail the audience can’t hope to understand, nor does it reach for action film clichés. Similarly, the dialogue between the writing duo doesn’t exist just as a vehicle to heighten the drama. Instead, the script retains a sense of normality, with enough attention being given to each individual story in order to build four nuanced characters. 

The four characters are performed by Katrina Allen and Daniel Ward. Their ability to switch roles and accents with such energetic conviction lends the piece believability and entertainment value. These characters aren’t made interesting by their environment, they are intriguing people, with their bold and brazen personalities refusing to be watered down by the grandeur of the storyline. 

Even with a successful script and cast, the elephant in the room still remains- how can you transport an audience to space when you are logistically restricted? To put it simply: you don’t. I often feel that productions underestimate the imagination of their audience and doubt their willingness to be immersed. Often a piece throws everything at its audience in an effort to reach complete transportation. This production proves you don’t need all that and that a little subtlety goes a long way.

Mikey Brett’s movement is the perfect example of the success of this production’s simplicity- slow sequences of delicate, gravity defying choreography, allows the actors to play within their world without the worry of overcomplicated spectacle that the audience wouldn’t buy into anyway. 

This play tackles its mammoth setting by scaling it right back; instead of focusing on the distance between the characters, it looks at what connects them. This touching perspective creates a play with a lot of heart, and reminds us that if there can be humans in space, so too can there be humanity.

The First is playing the VAULT Festival until 16 February. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival website.