tue 20/08/2019

Rocket to the Moon, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Rocket to the Moon, National Theatre

Rocket to the Moon, National Theatre

Clifford Odets's Depression-era drama doesn't quite achieve lift-off

The piece is rarely performed, and it’s not hard to see why. Its dialogue zings, ripples and aches by turns, but despite the pungent historical backdrop of the Great Depression, dramatically it’s fatally undernourished, at its centre a story that is in essence little more than a familiar fable of male midlife crisis.
The action begins on a sweltering June day in New York, in the waiting room of dentist Ben Stark (Joseph Millson). It’s three years to the day since his wife Belle (Keeley Hawes, making a poised stage debut) gave birth to a stillborn son. Their marriage is foundering, as are their finances – and Ben refuses to accept his eccentric, well-to-do father-in-law’s offer of the cash to move to swankier consulting rooms where he might do better business. Facing 40, he’s beginning to feel he’s squandered his life. To add to the hot-house atmosphere of imminent crisis, he has a pulchritudinous new secretary, Cleo Singer (Jessica Raine), perfumed, much made-up, swinging her hips and scandalously stockingless. She’d like to be an actress or a singer; but she’s open to other offers. Perhaps Belle’s flirtatious, flamboyant father Prince (Nicholas Woodeson) – who is estranged from his daughter – could be made to suit her purposes. Maybe it’ll be wry podiatrist Dr Jensen, or a self-regarding choreographer patient – or even, as Belle fears, Ben himself.

'The longing for spiritual connection is poignant, even when earthily expressed. “I’ll elope someday,” Hawes’s Belle threatens. “Then you’ll cry your blue eyes black”'

Angus Jackson’s production is persuasively acted, with a set by Anthony Ward that has the poetic melancholy of an Edward Hopper painting, lit with lovely lyricism by Mark Henderson – particularly when the rainstorm that inevitably breaks the torpid spell of the summer heat at last arrives. But it's all a little too imposingly spacious, leaving Odets’s rather static drama looking decidedly exposed. And to modern sensibilities, the writing seems attenuated: nigh on three hours long, the play is short on actual incident.
Rocket3Not that it’s without its own bittersweet savour. The longing of all the characters for spiritual connection, and for a sense of existential significance, is poignant, even when most earthily expressed. Hawes (pictured right) arrestingly suggests the mingled frustrations and disappointments of Belle. “I’ll elope someday,”’she threatens Ben, fear lurking beneath her assertive sassiness. “Then you’ll cry your blue eyes black.” Prince dismisses his rift with Belle in an aphorism – “I’m the American King Lear” – devours Cleo with his eyes, and gazes yearningly out of the window at the hotel opposite, behind whose shades he imagines all manner of thrilling sin being committed. Ben’s fellow dentist Phil Cooper (Peter Sullivan), falling hopelessly behind with the rent for his consulting room and drowning himself in drink, rages at his inability both to heal those who badly need his services but cannot afford them, and to make his own living. And Cleo, the temptress in flight from an impoverished upbringing, who practises movie-star poses before the waiting-room mirror and allows the smitten old Prince to buy her a poppy-red raincoat because she knows she looks sensational in it, is as terrified of desolation and negation as any of them. “Millions of people moving around the city,” she exclaims tremulously, “and nobody cares if you live or die.”
There are eloquent details here. When he first allows himself to catch hold of Cleo’s hand, Millson’s Ben stares at her scarlet fingernails as if entranced by the splash of bright, glossy colour in a grey world. Later, discovering his chief rival for her affections is his own father-in-law, he admits he’s jealous; and Raine’s Cleo allows herself a brief but radiant smile of satisfaction. But these are incidents in miniature; and they, and indeed the play as a whole, are dwarfed by a staging that, though by no means inelegant, is too disproportionate to permit real intimacy.

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