That moment when you discover a new playwright is always a special one. You sit in a theatre, wondering why you’ve never come across his/her work before, vowing not to be so ignorant in the future. The National Theatre, with its impressive revival of Rocket To The Moon, have made sure the name Clifford Odets on the lips of London theatre-goers for months to come.
Odets’ script, written in 1938, has elements from some of the greatest American playwrights. Hints of Williams can be found in the fusion of sexuality and innocence, and in the central character of a dentist living an ordinary life we hear echoes of Miller. Rocket To The Moon has a rich, complex and beautifully poetic script, but Angus Jackson’s production falls just short of doing justice to it.
It is one of the few plays (including Little Shop of Horrors) where one of the main characters is a dentist. Ben Stark is on the verge of mid-life crisis, and in one hot summer begins an affair with his secretary, Cleo. She becomes the centre of attention for three men; Stark, his father in law and a dance director. The script leads to Cleo having to make a choice, and includes some extraordinary moments of dialogue, considering the nature of love and life.
It is an almost unfathomable text, as Odets moves us from sympathising with one character to another, and we’re never quite sure who we want to prevail. Initially, it seems like a fairly sexist play, showing women as either naive (Cleo) or domineering (Mrs Stark), but in the final moments this idea is turned on its head, as the men are shown to be the ones lacking. But although this beauty is inherent in the text, Jackson’s production doesn’t quite capture these turning points, and seems at times to be somewhat static, and doesn’t add anything to the script which wasn’t already there.
It is a production not without its great moments and fantastic performances. The comedy in the production, for example, is nothing short of perfect, and in the central role of Stark, Joseph Millson is superb. A somewhat bumbling man to begin with, unsure of himself, he soon shows his versatility as he moves to someone broken and alone. Jessica Raine, although sometimes a little irritating, is alluring and innocent in equal measure, a kind of 1930s Blanche DuBois. Nicholas Woodeson plays her other suitor, Mr Prince, with joviality, but switches in an instant to a lonely and Machiavellian old man. Peter Sullivan as Phil Cooper, a colleague of Stark, is wry and cynical, and Sebastian Armesto as Frenchy, a doctor from downstairs, also offers a somewhat profound observation of events. It is unfortunate that Keeley Hawes, in her stage debut as Mrs Stark, offers the weakest link in the cast. Usually such a natural on-screen, she seems wooden and forced on stage, flapping her arms at regular intervals and giving a poor display of a New York accent. I’m also intrigued about the inclusion of ensemble members in the programme; they are nowhere to be seen.
Anthony Ward’s set, although impressive, does seem a little vast for such a private play. The feeling of a New York skyscraper is evoked perfectly, but at the expense of losing intimacy. Mark Henderson’s choice of lighting fixtures alone deserves applause; when they are the only light on stage the feel of the play becomes almost filmic. John Leonard’s sound is also worthy of mention – a constant stream of traffic seems to be rushing past the window, and at opportune moments we hear sirens and shouting.
It is fantastic that the National Theatre have chosen to resurrect this play. Odets’ script is so intricate and yet so complex, and will no doubt introduce his work to a wider audience (including yours truly). Jackson’s production, however, sometimes loses itself in the poetry and complexities of the text, and although we are given a faithful representation, it never quite reaches the heights it deserves.