Ready on the Launch Pad: Subtlenuance’s Rocket Man

by theatrebloggers

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Paul Gilchrist’s Rocket Man (2013) produced by Subtlenuance, is currently enjoying its world premiere at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst. The play tells the story of Neil and Veronica: she is an actress, he is an astronaut. Well … not really. But she really is an actress who has a reading with the Sydney Theatre Company for the role of Lady Macbeth. He … well, we never really learn what he is (apart from being her one night stand). What we do learn though is that he has a passionate hatred for actors (and theatre) and is determined to stop her from landing this career making role. The pair subsequently engages in an argument as to the merits of their opposing philosophical positions, reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s Socratic dialogues (such as The Decay of Lying). By the end, things get rather heated. Their argument is however quite playful in places and very meta-fictive, drawing laughs when talk turns to the state of Independent theatre, a category this production inevitably falls into.

This position represents about three quarters of the play. The last quarter of the play (and arguably where the play’s real focus is) examines Veronica’s roommate Claudia and her relationship with her boyfriend Justin.  She is an emergency ward nurse and he her long suffering partner. The arguments in the first section of the play are made to sit against this final scene. The issues of how life can be captured and represented on stage, this kind of faked reality, becomes pretty petty when set against the real life problems this couple is facing: Claudia’s actions can mean the difference between life and death.

Sylvia Keays as Veronica and Daniel Hunter as Neil

Sylvia Keays as Veronica and Daniel Hunter as Neil

The problem with the script though is that these two sections don’t link up well. Gilchrist is trying to make a point about storytelling and its consequences, and whilst he has a litter of interesting concepts floating about, he hasn’t quite managed to tie them together cohesively. Veronica and Neil, who dominate the stage for the majority of the play, aren’t really given a plot and their banter is quite didactic. Though this is fine to start off with, after 45 minutes you start to yearn for some plot. And whilst the final scene is very moving, it doesn’t link up strongly enough with the theatrical argument to get the payoff. This is a shame because it is clear that Gilchrist has a deft hand when it comes to playwriting: his scenes, standing alone, work very well and he’s made some astute observations as to how people behave in arguments, and the speech rhythms of his characters certainly ring true. Gilchrist has something to say here it just hasn’t fully crystalized.

The performances though are all very strong. Sylvia Keays played Veronica, the aspiring actress and ideological mouth piece of the play. In the latter role Keays had a particularly difficult job. She was required to make sense of, and convincingly articulate, a large number of heavily conceptual ideas. These include questioning the role of acting and stories in life and on stage. At times this may have been a thankless task. Nevertheless, Keays tackled the role well and dealt with the changes, making her largely believable as this unbaiting ideologue. Of note was her clear diction and balanced pacing, a skill sometimes overlooked by actors but one greatly appreciated in word heavy plays such as these.

Alyssan Russell as Claudia and Stephen Wilkinson as Justin

Alyssan Russell as Claudia and Stephen Wilkinson as Justin

Daniel Hunter played Neil, Veronica’s one night stand. Apart from being aesthetically pleasing (sporting just his underwear for the majority of the show) Hunter smoothly and consistently managed the transition from loveable ‘dickhead’ to dangerous ‘wife beater’. Hunter understood the script and beautifully demonstrated how quickly a person can change, and in doing so, how they often reveal ‘uglier’ selves. Ultimately, Hunter’s performance generated a full embodiment of the type of guy that is scarily familiar to many women. This was even more notable as the script sometimes lacked the motivation the character required.

Alyssan Russell was well grounded in the role of Claudia, an overworked and exhausted nurse, and flat mate of Veronica. Particularly, Russell nicely balanced the tension and relaxed nature of this typically Australian woman, without overdoing the portrayal. She really hit her stride during the last argument with her long term boyfriend Justin, and produced an affecting scene which rang true of the experience of relationship strain. Russell was a lovely addition to the stage, and it was a shame we didn’t see more of her.

Sylvia Keays as Veronica

Sylvia Keays as Veronica

Stephen Wilkinson however, was the stand out performance. Playing the highly timid boyfriend (Justin) of Claudia, Wilkinson was wonderfully true to the character in Gilchrist’s script. He found the comedic moments with humility and was nuanced during conflict. He was deeply moving during his final scene with Russell and we saw the loyalty and good nature of this charming, sensitive and layered man. He ironically stole the show without attempting to. In fact, he was a very generous actor and gave his fellow actors all that he had. Russell produced a quality performance and should be congratulated for it.

The set is a welcome change from the standard Tap Gallery offering. While bear minimalism is the stock standard, Gilchrist has offered us a more naturalistic and clustered set (a point which is of course referenced to comedic effect). A bed is centre stage, sheets and covers strewn, clothes everywhere. It looks like the room of a struggling actor and it definitely works.

This production has a lot of good points and is well worth the trip. It just falls short of being something fantastic which one feels an extra draft would have produced.

Rocket Man is playing at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst at 8pm until the 14th of July. For tickets and further information see: http://www.tapgallery.org.au/2013/06/rocket-man-by-paul-gilchrist-4-14-july-upstairs-theatre/

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