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A CurtainUp London London Review
A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky

It is our guilt that makes us human. — Margaret
A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky
Ann Mitchell as Margaret, Nigel Cooke as Will and Harry McEntire as Philip (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
We are told in the programme that A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, a play collaborated on by three playwrights —David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens— was first planned in 2002. Is the eight years that it has taken to come to the stage reflective of the difficulty of compromise when three artistic egos are involved? Whatever the reasons for the delay this play is more of a slow burn than an explosive effort and at the interval I was questioning what it was all about, searching for clues in the flyers in the theatre. However by the second half, the plot seemed to tighten up and I was genuinely moved by some of the revelations which made me think about my own family and our antecedents.

The scenario is this: Margaret (Ann Mitchell) has given birth to five sons over 36 years. They now range in age from William (Nigel Cooke) who is 50 and dying of cancer to 14 year old Philip (the very talented Harry McEntire). The world is due to end in three weeks when a cosmic string is going to tear the Universe into a thousand pieces. I'm afraid this reviewer is a scientificophobe so don't expect any examination of the scientific principles behind the plot for the play from me. A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky hinges on our humanity rather than on religion or any belief in an afterlife. What would you do given notice of the end of life on the planet?

The Benton family attempt to come together at the deathbed of William and some explanations are made for family secrets and the way in which dysfunction is born in families. The emotional inheritance of Margaret's mother, Dorrity Porter's (Lisa Diveney) lack of affection for her much older and brutal husband is passed on through the generations as clearly as the wristwatch which belonged to Dorrity's 16 year old lover Karl Steiner (Tom Mothersdale).

There are images which are like poetry: William standing, naked and vulnerable in a tin bath while his mother washes him down with a flannel. This scene tells us more about the relationship between mother and son than any speech, even though he is 50 and she is now in her 70s. His terminal illness recreates the dependency of a child on its mother. Sean Holmes

The performances are very convincing. There is the doughty Ann Mitchell as Margaret who tells us that she walked five miles to slap the face of a boy. One strand of the family is the brother next in age to William, Jake (Alan Williams) who conceived his wayward, wild addict daughter Nicola (Kirsty Bushell) at 17 and who in turn gave birth to her son Roy (Rupert Simonian) at 17, leaving the quirky boy to be brought up by his grandfather. And what does Jake want? For his mother to feel proud of him. James the academic (Pearce Quigley) has no children and lacks connection with his housework obsessed wife Harriet (Tanya Moodie) but has to decide what will happen to the family pet, a beautiful Standard poodle. Heartbreaking! James is trying to make contact with Edward (Andrew Sheridan) who lives a tramp like existence. Harry McEntire is Philip, the last of the brothers who has been brought up largely on his own as he is 14 years younger than Edward. Philip seems independent and outspoken but has the pre-occupations of most adolescents.

As the end of the word approaches a blindingly bright light distracts in a scene between Nicola and Edward when they meet without knowing they are related. The staging is simple except that that stage has been pared away to reveal the grid irons and underneath the bedrock, the stone of a quarrying area the idea being that the set represents what lies beneath this family. Sean Holmes has a minimalist set, a shame, as I would have liked more sense of place as the scene switches from Twickenham and Exeter to Yorkshire but his natural direction allows each of the strong characters to make an indelible impression.

As I write about it I find that this play, the first hour of which I found difficult, is setting up powerful, emotional, electric shocks as the writing penetrates the essence of what we are, what we are made into by our families and why we are like this. A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky is also about secrets and sexuality, those things never discussed or mentioned because they are perceived as shameful. The final message as Margaret looks up into the exploding stars is one of hope and self forgiveness.

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A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky
Written by David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens
Directed by Sean Holmes

Starring: Nigel Cooke, Ann Mitchell, Pearce Quigley, Harry McEntire, Alan Williams, Kirsty Bushell
With: Rupert Simonian, Andrew Sheridan, Lisa Diveney, Tom Mothersdale
Jenny the dog played by Kerry, Lola, Saffy or Scarlett
Design: Jon Bausor
Lighting: Adam Silverman
Composer: Dominic Kanza
Sound: Nick Manning
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Production supported by NoraLee and John Sedmak

Box Office: 0871 2211 729
Booking to 29th May 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th May 2010 performance at the Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 0QL (Tube: Hammersmith)

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