Content Warning: mild spoilers
The First is an entertaining, thought-provoking and heartstring-pulling piece, which goes where few theatre productions have gone before. (Sorry…)
The performance flits between two scenes, millions of miles apart. In the vast emptiness of space, two astronauts, Rose (Katrina Allen) and Simeon (Daniel Ward), prepare to be the first humans to ever walk on Mars. Back on Earth, Republican script-doctor Marcus and Aisha (a TV-writer looking for a comeback) find the words to describe the enormity of this potential success and the horror of its potential failure. This play of two sides, conveyed by the same two actors in the same small space, manages to evoke an unfathomable and tragic sense of distance between the two scenes. The astronauts work, joke and plan their first words on a brand new planet while millions of miles away the scriptwriters bicker about politics and act as translators for events they do not comprehend in order to provide the meaning and context that makes it all worth the struggle. This disconnection generates a powerful, aching loneliness that hangs like a pall over the action.
“A powerful, aching loneliness that hangs like a pall over the action”
The play is also incredibly insidious in the way it makes you care about its two heroes. It starts slowly and takes time to build the relationships and nuances before shattering the calm with a sledgehammer. It rams home the grand scale and horror of space while maintaining a keen, quiet touch of basic human emotion which ties it all together – a mournful note of the personal cost of humanity’s need to always reach beyond, and have more. This sense of scale was compounded by the tiny space it was performed in and the traverse layout compressed the space the actors had to move in. It was cramped, it was hot, and this built the intensity in a way that the audience couldn’t escape.
The two actors carried the not-inconsiderable amount of action and character switching with finesse and warmth. Allen, especially, exuded dynamism and an intense watchability through her very different characters – a confident (read: cocky) American astronaut with a go-get-em attitude versus a softer, more unsure Scottish TV show producer. Ward also brings pathos and charisma as the spaceship’s wry, dry-humoured and very English doctor, and even manages to make the conservative scriptwriter who (figuratively) has ‘asshole’ written across his forehead likeable – an ability I previously saw in his recent production The Canary and the Crow.
“A vivid and intelligent play about basic humanity”
The switch between very different characters relied heavily on the actors altering their accents and physicality. The former made it a lot easier to differentiate between the characters, but there were definitely some dodgy moments. The latter, on the other hand, was done subtlety and to great effect. This was continued in the play’s movement pieces (excellently directed by Emily Jenkins) where the astronauts appeared to float weightlessly around the stage. These moments, however brilliant, were few and far between, and left me wishing that this had been choreographed throughout the space scenes. Instead, it only felt like they were definitely in space sometimes, when passing a wrench by floating it in mid air, but at other times this was completely forgotten.
More than physicality, however, this play deals with words and their ability to label and make sense of things. While the scenes set in space seemed more developed and ultimately more powerful than the ones set on Earth, the latter maintains its interest from asking the big questions. As Aisha sums up when faced with the possibility of loss of life: “words don’t seem big enough”. The concept of the two speeches was a powerful one – how do you write a hero, and how to you find the words to eulogise people you don’t know and make sense of catastrophe? For the two professionals on Earth, words are their daily bread, but as the play continued I was led to question the point of this kind of linguistic spin, a question which stayed with me long after I had left. Whatever words the scriptwriters use, they will never fully encapsulate the real lives and characters of the people they’re describing. This realisation is what makes The First so terrifying.
This was especially true when it came to the play’s unique dealing with fame and its price, alongside why the concept of being ‘the first’ is so very important. But what is so brilliant about this performance, handled with nuance by writer Barry McStay, is that it deals with failure. Success has always been celebrated, but what happens when you come so far only to fall at the final hurdle? The slow, creeping horror in the astronauts’ realisation that everything they built up can so quickly come crashing down hit me hard in the stomach. The combination of an exceptional script and talented acting built this atmosphere of blank, overwhelming fear – of the darkness and meaninglessness of space and the emptiness of failure, and ultimately of death so far away from loved ones. Poignantly accompanied by the favourite songs of the astronauts played on their ship as a backing track, it’s difficult to watch. I may have cried. A lot. (Bring tissues.)
“Simple, but full of enough depth to make your heart ache”
What is really foregrounded in this is human emotion and connection. The characters fight, they laugh and they share stories and parts of themselves against the grand background of space and the high stakes of their mission. It shows that whatever our labels define us as – African American Republican or female astronaut – they are labels which may be carried millions of miles away from Earth by own our need to define things. When pushed to our limits this play reveals that all we humans want more than anything is connection. Whether it’s to be hit, kissed or just hugged, the characters’ desire for human contact in the most intense of moments is what makes this performance so touching.
The best moments of this performance are its quietest, which ring louder than any noise – fitting, for a play about the limits of words. The ending (without giving you too many spoilers) especially hits this home in a way that is simple and poignant. However, my slight criticism is that I wish this silence had been given slightly more space, instead of being barrelled through for the sake of tempo.
This is a vivid and intelligent play about basic humanity, which is never clearer or more tragic than when played out in the vast, alien and empty stage of space. It is simple, but full of enough depth to make your heart ache.
The First finishes its run at The Pit (The Vaults, Leake Street) on 16th February 2020.