A thousand stars explode in the sky

A new play by David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens

Directed by Sean Holmes

Lyric Hammersmith

Three playwrights, eleven actors, one dog and a director tackle the end of the world in this collaborative production. It is an ambitious project to pull off and although the creative team at the Lyric Hammersmith rise to the challenge, I found the final result uneven.

The play, by David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens, centres on the Bentons, a well-to-do farming family from the north-east of England. But fraternal rivalry has pulled them apart and the five brothers (ranging in age from fourteen to early fifties) are now dispersed throughout the country. The end of the world is nigh and the eldest brother, William (Nigel Cooke), dying of colon cancer, engages his historian brother James (Pearce Quigley) to reunite the family at their childhood home, Mill Farm.

I like the description of ‘cosmic string’ as the harbinger of doom, but don’t entirely buy the play’s major premise that the universe is due to collapse in three weeks. The characters don’t exhibit any real sense of urgency or panic and those members of the family who return to Mill Farm might as well be reluctantly reuniting for an annual Christmas dinner rather than from a shared dread of the end.

That said, as a domestic drama A THOUSAND STARS EXPLODE IN THE SKY has real depth. The individual characters are beautifully drawn and their familial conflicts both credible and emotive. There are some lovely scenes – such as when the mother bathes her adult son or when her youngest, Philip (Harry McEntire), visits the past (through family diaries) and finds himself holding his mother as a baby and watching his grandmother commit adultery with the Jewish refugee rescued by her Quaker husband. But hints of domestic abuse are never fully explored and it is not clear why Ann Mitchell's matriarch is so arch and unforgiving -- except that it must have been relentlessly hard to run a farm and bring up five sons.

The destruction of the family unit and the attempts to heal old wounds is where the play resonates the most and I wished the playwrights had agreed to drop the annihilation of earth theme. It may well  have served as inspiration, but by the end feels redundant; particularly as the five sons seem far more concerned about their various failures to live up to their mother’s expectations than their imminent demise.

Caveats aside, it is thrilling to watch another large-cast play take off at the Lyric -- the performances are all superb (including Jenny, the dog). I loved Jon Bausor’s bleak stage set and Sean Holmes finely judged direction ensure that the play is absorbing throughout.

Running until 5 June 2010

Published in Theatreworld Internet Magazine