Masque Theatre present Jane Anderson’s heartbreaking and hopeful play about the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster to The Playhouse Theatre for one week this October.
Two minutes and forty-five seconds. Seem like a very short amount of time? What can you do in two-minutes and forty-five seconds, it’s barely enough time to make a cup of tea.
Yet for the 7 crew members of the Challenger this was the time it took between the shuttle breaking apart and their death as they made impact with the ocean. 165 seconds, plummeting back to earth, accepting the fact that escape is impossible and death is imminent. Doesn’t seem quite such a short amount of time now does it?
Jane Anderson’s ‘Defying Gravity’ has the devastating event of 1986 at its forefront, directed by Megan Lucas with Masque Theatre. The play does not attempt to stage the break-up of the shuttle but instead presents perspectives of that fatal day in Florida. A teacher, a daughter, a bar maid, an engineer, a well-travelled couple and a French impressionist painter (of all people), tell their stories in this heart-breaking yet uplifting story.
The play opens with a monologue by Claude Monet (Lou Chawner), the French impressionist artist who acts as almost a spirit guide throughout the play. He interacts with those in the present to provide his cultivated view point through his artistic eye. As someone with a lack of knowledge of Monet and his work, it did take a while to see the significance of using the perspective of the French impressionist. Chawner’s portrayal of the character however was no less than a delight to watch with his soft French accent and calming aura.
The play follows one of the astronauts from the Challenger mission, The Teacher (Bex Fey) as well as her daughter Elizabeth (Julia Langley). Elizabeth acts both as her adult and younger self, presenting the (often turbulent) relationship with her mother leading up to the mission. Langley was incredibly captivating, transitioning between her adult and 5 year old self effortlessly. We witness the pain of a little girl who just so desperately wanted her mother’s attention and love, with no real comprehension of what going to space really meant. Elizabeth describing her panic of trying to remove the lint from a Lifesaver sweet, believing that if she doesn’t her mother won’t come back safe – perfectly encapsulates Elizabeth’s naivety. Fey and Langley worked wonderfully together as mother and daughter, with just the right amount of friction and affection.
Much of the play’s humour was brought by the bickering Betty (April Pardoe) and Ed (John Myhill) a retired couple making their way around the USA in an RV – making a stop in Florida to witness the launch. Betty’s fascination with astronauts brings them to bar in which they are introduced to Donna (Lisa Wright) a feisty bar maid with close bonds with many of the astronauts as well as C.B. (Jof Davies) a NASA engineer. The bar becomes a place of great significance, both for the hype and trepidation leading up to the launch and the mourning of the hours afterwards. Davies portrayal of C.B.’s grief was particularly moving. The brash, tough-talking, southern character is reduced to a shell of his former self when forced to write a letter of condolence to Elizabeth. The cast, as a whole, were extremely strong, each character well developed and truthful. Accents were required by all cast members, which is always a risky business, but were for the most part maintained well.
Megan Lucas’ use of set was creative, if not ambitious, for the small stage of the Playhouse Theatre. The reasonably simplistic set consisting of a plywood structure and projection was adapted throughout; from rocket to RV, from bar to circus. The transitions were at times a little slow and clumsy but overall it was an imaginative use of space with a lot of character. Lucas clearly has an eye for detail, no compromises were made in regards to the 80s setting. The blue eyeshadow, the bigger than life hair, Betty’s wonderful shell suit, Ed’s film camera – it all added to the authenticity (or at least what myself as a millennial imagines to be authentic eighties). The radio broadcast, consisting of eighties bops and real time updates on the build up to the launch, played prior to the show was another well thought out element.
Defying Gravity is a story ultimately built around devastation yet this play is about more than just the grief and regret. It also captures human’s innate strength to overcome devastation and keep reaching for the stars. As Elizabeth describes ‘We were meant to fly’.
Performance: Wed 17 October 2018, The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton
Defying Gravity takes to the Playhouse Theatre stage until Sat 20 Oct at 7.30pm. Tickets are on sale at www.masquetheatre.co.uk, and are available to purchase on the door at £9 each.
Megan is an actor-musician originally from Northampton. She is a recent graduate of Surrey-based theatre company Peer Productions. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, watching live theatre, going to gigs and befriending dogs.