The Astronaut’s Chair – Review

Apr 24 2014 | By More

★★★☆☆   Breathing thin air

Assembly Roxy: Weds 23 – Sat 26 April 2014
Review by Thom Dibdin

Stepping out over the edge of the atmosphere into space might be a dream for most, but it is one which high-flying aviator Renee Coburg  feels is already within her grasp.

The Astronaut’s Chair, at the Assembly Roxy until Saturday, is set in America during the space race – as the Cold War was beginning to turn nuclear with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Image from script cover. © Nick Hern Books

Image from script cover. © Nick Hern Books

Rona Munro’s 2012 script is based on the true histories of the so-called Mercury 13 – female pilots who passed the same tests to become astronauts as male pilots at NASA, but who never made it into space.

Arkle Theatre Company have gone for simplicity in their staging under the direction of Dario Dalla Costa in this, the amateur premiere of the play. They make great use of John Weitzen’s lighting scheme to keep things clear as the play boggles about in time – and in and out of the now-ageing Renee’s imagination and memories.

Hilary Davis gives a solid, sometimes slightly laboured performance as Renee. It is a demanding role as she is on stage throughout, but any failings in her delivery are more than made up for in her ability to appear to physically change in age between scenes, as the near-senile old woman relives her early triumphs.

While Renee was a ground-breaker, running the US female air-corps during the second world war and breaking records for height, speed and endurance after it, the younger Jo Green is hard at her heels.

Jo, given a true sense of driven intensity by Orla O’Connell, is not just a pilot who has been smashing Renee’s records, but is a younger, fitter and more capable candidate to be the first woman in space. Ironically, under the programme funded by Renee.

“Munro’s script shines through.”

It is this rivalry which drives the whole play. Underneath it, Pat Hymers gives suitably solid support as Dr Steve, a one-time airman who runs the testing programme and was once Renee’s lover. And David Scott is equally functional in various roles including Kennedy and a senator in charge of the commission which will decide on NASA’s duty to take on female astronauts.

Busy Bronagh Finlay also has to be switch between characters. She is particularly fine as Larissa, a Russian doctor and defector who looks after Renee, but also serves excellently as Valentina, the cosmonaut who was the first woman in space.

All three only serve the relationship between Renee and Jo which, as the play develops, become much more complex and Machiavellian than it is ever allowed to appear on the surface.

As a production, this has its faults, mostly technical. There are passages in the first half when Steve and Renee are reduced to long bouts of shouting, with their noses only inches apart, where Dalla Costa really needs to explore using more of the stage.

Yet Munro’s script still shines through. As it does, what emerges is that this is not just about sexist attitudes in the American space programme, or even of women in space. But that this complex relationship between Renee and Jo is a reflection of the competitive society in which they live.

And as the whole play moves to the decisive congressional investigation, at which Renee is due to give evidence, the true nature of that divisive relationship becomes clear. The future of that which she has spent her life fighting for might be in the balance, but it is her ability to pass on the baton that is under question.

Running time 2 hrs.
Run ends Saturday 26 April, 2014.
Daily 7.30pm.
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Tickets details from Arkle website, or £10 on the door.

Click on the image above to purchase the script through Amazon.


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