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Review of Defying Gravity by Masque Theatre at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton

I was eight when the Challenger shuttle explosion occurred and more than old enough to remember it, but curiously I have very little memory of it at the time. I have no doubt that my staple then of Newsround covered it, and probably Blue Peter, but no real vivid memory from that very day. Fortunately, director of Defying Gravity, Megan Lucus does, and that love, memory and understanding of the event drives the engine at the heart of this production (and a dedication to allow a childhood toy to get quite a pummeling as well). All theatre productions need energy and time to be put into them, however, here even with just the visual element, it is clear that this show has had so much more time than most put into it.

Defying Gravity by Jane Anderson takes six fictional characters, and one real one out of time, and takes us on a journey of what it was like to live through those 1986 events in Florida. Their account while fictional does include Teacher (Bex Fey), a very clear representation of Christa McAuliffe (and here, hair styled to be an even clearer depiction of).

Defying Gravity has at its core, an exceptional cast, April Pardoe and John Myhill as Winnebago travellers, married couple, Betty and Ed, are almost background material at times, providing the comic foil in scenes. They are as always excellent, with Pardoe an infuriating chatterbox, and Myhill standing by, often camera in hand or on tripod, looking on despairingly.

Lisa Wright is great as bartender Donna, catcher of the eyes of the patrons, especially a certain C.B (Jof Davies). She has two excellent scenes, one with Fey and the stool, and a later, an excellently performed monologue telling of an encounter with a journalist coming fishing for titbits. A very nicely and softly played performance.

Lou Chawner once again, as he did in Madame Bovary, looks the part as Monet (yes, Monet), the traveller across time. His French accent is just about right, not too comic, not too unclear, and his willowy portrayal of the character seems just about right. His delivery of the opening monologue of the play, a superbly written part (curiously not directly about the event itself), is well judged in its delivery and sets the emotion of the play extremely well. I particularly loved also his little scene where Van Gogh is being discussed, great fun!

Jof Davies is once again a brilliant presence on stage and gets to use his immense skill for an American accent again (and it has to be said that the whole cast do well in this respect. Solid accents, but more importantly all clear enough that dialogue is never lost). Davies' depiction in the second act of a worker in trauma over what he has done is amazing and very heartfelt, brimming with very real emotion.

Never one to disappoint, Julia Langley is a tremendous force once again as Elizabeth, daughter of Teacher, who weaves between a much older character and her five-year-old form. The switches between character are flawless, and the scene where she loses her mother for the first time is an emotionally overwhelmingly played piece.

However, in an incredibly strong cast, there is just one that stands out as the best, and that is Masque debutant Bex Fey as Teacher. Such a strong performance, filled with power and clarity of delivery, an exceptional accent as well. Be it from the scenes with her daughter (she and Langley here are a formidable force together), or to the often very comical, but professional scenes of her addressing her class (with brilliantly funny interruptions from weird pupil Jason), she is simply amazing. A real classy performance, in a play filled to the brim with them.

Director Megan Lucas gives us a tour-de-force of a theatre performance, creating space rocket, bar and Winnebago on stage, the moment of the revelation of the latter is quite a moment especially. Later we end up, rather oddly in a circus tent as well, as Anderson's script twists and turns in extraordinary directions. For me, the second act loses a bit in the clarity of storytelling from Anderson, with the first act finishing on such a moment, that it is difficult to get back into the flow. It is never, ever, disappointing though as we still get that tremendous scene of responsibility of death between Fey and Davies to experience.

There are some brilliant touches elsewhere from the simple lighting depicting the souls lost in turn and to a tremendously bold, and no doubt with some controversial, unscripted moment where we the audience experience those two minutes and 45 seconds before death. While I am sure some would dislike this part, for me, it is bold and challenging theatre, and why can't we just put in this brief time in our busy lives to remember them?

Defying Gravity is a technical marvel as well. and while there were a couple of hiccups, it never impacted the flow of the piece. There is some nice lighting on the show, although a couple of scenes felt underlit, but much more is the clever use of projection and created video, all going in to make the whole play an experience, rather than just a piece of theatre.

The story of the Challenger disaster still retains its power over thirty years later, it struck such a cord with the world at a time, and no doubt with those working on space travel where perhaps they becoming so blasé with the apparent ease that it had become. This play, nicely written by Anderson, and expertly created by Lucas, her cast and her crew, honours those lost in quite a different way. It's a remarkable piece of theatre that really needs to be experienced.

Performance reviewed: Wednesday 17th October 2018 at the Playhouse Theatre, Northampton.

Defying Gravity runs until Saturday 20th October 2018 at the Playhouse Theatre, Northampton.

Details of Masque can be found at http://www.masquetheatre.co.uk/

Photos: Joe Brown

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