Countdown to ignition: subtlenuance’s Rocket Man

Which child doesn’t, at some point or another, dream of reaching the stars? It’s an idea that’s been floating around the place lately, for perhaps a year or two, at least noticeably since ‘the man on the moon’ Neil Armstrong passed away in 2012. In Paul Gilchrist’s play Rocket Man playing at Darlinghurst’s TAP Gallery theatre, the idea of reaching for the stars is spun into another cosmos, a personal intimate universe of relationships, storytelling, the nature of playing and the theatre.

In a nutshell, Gilchrist’s play orbits around Neil and Veronica, who met at a party the night before. Veronica is an actor with an audition for a role at the STC. Neil tells girls he’s an astronaut. Before she can leave, she has to get rid of the rocket man. Set against this main plot, is another orbiting around Claudia, a casualty nurse, and her boyfriend Justin, a house painter. As both stories’ orbits collide, as the moment of launch is reached, we are given a fleeting glimpse of the private fears and passions at the heart of each character’s world.
Set in Veronica’s bedroom – designed with particular attention to detail by Rachel Scane – it is in many respects a bitter play: bitter and defensive, but there is also a yearning, a passion to dream, a desire to try to get someone else to see the world from your shoes. As with many plays about theatre and theatrical habits, Chekhov and Hamlet are discussed, obliquely and directly. Rather than being merely exercises in name-dropping, their inclusion and reference serves to cement the play’s central thesis within the grounds of a much larger (and perhaps more undefinable) one – the question of ‘why play? Why make theatre?’ It is also quite self-deprecating and meta-referential but it takes a palpable hit at the current proliferation of ‘Australianised’ productions of The Classics, proposing new productions of Chekhov’s four main plays in The Cherry Ripe, Uncle Vineyard, The Seagull. And Another One. And Another One, and The Three Sisters. Launching off Neil and Veronica’s extended (and, at times, quite heated) discussion about theatre and the process of storytelling, Claudia and Justin’s interrogates the idea of the personal stories we tell, those of the things we see and experience, the ones we overhear and relate to others, the ones we find ourselves caught up in against our wishes, the ones we are powerless to stop regardless of whether we could’ve or not. While the main discussion is certainly passionate and forceful, I found Claudia and Justin’s final moments to be only the beginning of their conversation, and would’ve liked for it to have continued longer than it did.
The cast were all strong, though Justin’s character seemed weaker and more defeatist than he needed to be; regardless of Neil’s overbearing nature, Justin’s comment – “Someone needs to be wrong. I can be that person” – seemed to negate any kind of authority and strength he may have previously held. Veronica’s dignified and unwavering defence of her profession and passion in the face of Neil’s vehement denial of its worth was credible, as was the brief glimpse into Claudia’s inability to cope with the traumas she sees night after night in the casualty department. Ultimately, while I don’t doubt the veracity and the passion of Gilchrist’s writing, I found Neil’s loathing and belittling of Veronica’s occupation to be too unwavering and self-destructive to be realistic or credible. While we certainly saw his character change, it seemed that the sustained barrage of his attack undermined any of the (sexual) attraction that was present between him and Veronica at the beginning.
For all the build-up and the countdown, the desired moment of lift-off was buried too deep in a cloud of noxious gas and fire to be ultimately transcendent.

Theatre playlist: 18. Astral Boy, Killing Heidi

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