Review: Rocket to the Moon

Drama to sink your teeth into

By John Nathan, April 11, 2011


Incisive: Joseph Milson as Ben Stark and Jessica Raine as Cleo Singer in Rocket to the Moon

Incisive: Joseph Milson as Ben Stark and Jessica Raine as Cleo Singer in Rocket to the Moon

Anyone who sees Clifford Odets's dysfunctional marriage play after encountering the hard-talking Bronx, Jewish Berger family in Awake and Sing! will wonder where all the drama has gone. But be patient.

The action - actually, inaction for much of the first two acts - takes place in a New York office in 1938. Anthony Ward's exquisite design consists of a cavernous office and the long corridor that leads up to it.

Business is slow for the clinicians who work on the other side of the glass doors that line the passage.

People come and go. Watching Angus Jackson's mesmerising production is like being transported back in time, though to no event in particular. And although for long periods not much happens, the trickle of human traffic is rewarding in a voyeuristic kind of way, as is the story that unfolds in the office belonging to dentist Ben Stark (Joseph Millson).

The point is, any one of the off- stage rooms leading up to Stark's office could contain personal dramas as excruciating as the one Odets wrote for his diffident hero.

This one features a failing marriage - that of Stark and his domineering wife Belle (Keeley Hawes) - which long ago was numbed by the loss of an only child.

More pressure is put on the relationship with the arrival of Stark's shapely new secretary Cleo (Jessica Raine), an addition to the office much resented by Belle and much appreciated by her estranged father Prince (Nicolas Woodeson) who knows that if being married to his daughter is anything like being married to her mother, Stark is to be pitied.

This beautifully performed production scores as much by suppressing conflict as it does by expressing it. Here, terms of endearment are exchanged by the spouses through gritted teeth. And when Stark's bimbo secretary Cleo - subjected to serial humiliations and lascivious passes by most of the men in the play - is exposed as a fantasist, she keeps her lipsticked smile going right through the humiliation.

It is the smiling that is as hard to watch here as the crying. If there is a price to pay for all this restraint, it is that the third act climax - in which competing loves are declared, a mild man resorts to violence and dignity is snatched from jaws of disgrace - feels overwrought.

But it would be perverse to complain that the rocket you came to watch was a bit too noisy when it finally took off.

Last updated: 4:20pm, April 11 2011