The impressively named your ‘Hot Cousin’ theatre company brings to the VAULT festival the boldly experimental Don’t Talk to Strangers. Based on the real life story of NASA’s Golden Record project, the play charts how an indestructible record of earthly audio was created, to be launched into space in the hope of extra-terrestrials someday coming across it. The project is the brainchild of writer Carl Sagan and project director Ann Druyan and it is their relationship, evolving from professional to romantic, that forms the core of the play.
The very concept of the elusive Golden Record seems to fit this theatre company’s experimental brief perfectly; the record’s contents ranged from some landmark pop culture (Beethoven) to the sort of audio that, when listed, defies the imagination (the sound of sperm hitting an egg, the sound of DNA, water, etc.). It’s this level of weird and abstract that the creatives strive for in opening their play with a pink, motorcycle helmet-wearing figure, cutting a graceful path across the stage, who remains throughout.
“Unafraid to tackle some weighty ideas in an exceptionally strange but undeniably entertaining way”
Moments like this aside, a loose narrative is cobbled together by staging an interview of Sagan and Druyan with Elana Binysh acting the part of a chummy talk show host. Some good laughs are drawn from the cliché cosy couple dynamic of Druyan and Sagan (played with bottomless reserves of energy by Ally Poole and Stephanie Fuller) as we learn about how their relationship blossomed whilst working on the project together. Things get stranger when the actors stage the interview repeatedly with gradual alterations each time; the cute-couple dynamic gives way to something a bit chillier and more awkward and some of the Golden Record’s more salacious content is revealed via further probing questions from Binysh’s host.
It’s an intriguing look at how wildly different meanings can be extracted from the same scene given a few alterations in dialogue and performance, but it also fails to answer, perhaps deliberately, the question of the Golden Record project’s necessity and ethics. The tone also changes sharply when the alien-like dancer, stalking the fringes of the stage throughout, starts to play more of a role in the action itself as she violently smashes vinyl records against chairs and begins to interact with the other performers. These later moments chart some David-Lynch levels of weird but are performed with exceptional commitment by the cast with Madeleine Lewis’ dance sequences, although initially jarring, becoming some of the play’s most hypnotic digressions that never fail to engage an often transfixed audience throughout the hour-long runtime.
Whilst the contemporary significance of the Golden Record becomes apparent by the play’s end, the more controversial questions raised by the record’s creation remain unsatisfyingly handled. Not least of which include some accusations of cultural insensitivity that the play seemingly levels at Sagan and Druyan; conventional dialogue, and any of the issues raised within it, are ultimately discarded as the play moves into a surreal finale that makes full use of some absorbingly warped choreography (courtesy of movement director Christina Fulcher).
A refreshingly peculiar experience, even by fringe theatre standards, Don’t Talk to Strangers signals the arrival of a bold new theatre company unafraid to tackle some weighty ideas in an exceptionally strange but undeniably entertaining way. It may not successfully grapple with all the issues it lays out but, despite an early meta-gag about the play’s lack of funding, illustrates how ambition and entertainment value need not be restricted by a production’s scale.
Don’t Talk to Strangers ran at the VAULT Festival at the Forge until 1st March 2020.