Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, Lyric Hammersmith

A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky is (not) about the end of the world.

The multifarious members of the Benton family talk of cosmic tears in a universe coming apart at the seams. And yet the impending doom feels less significant than the inevitably doomed. That is to say that by offering a portrait of its end, Simon Stephens, Robert Holman and David Eldridge – writing collaboratively (more of which later) – have achieved a snapshot of the world as is. The view they offer, however, is not as we are accustomed to, but rather oddly detached from the usual order of things; a view that veers a little nearer to objectivity. The world presented is a world caught in amber, fossilised or frozen, filled with the remnants of a civilisation – our civilisation – on which we can reminisce fondly. It’s Pompeii all over again.

To that end, the trio have gathered together the fluff that collects in the tumble dryer of life and placed it in something akin to a gallery context. It’s like Duchamp’s Fontaine, only all-encompassing: the world as readymade, as an objet d’art.

There are two reasons for this skewing of expectations. Firstly, the apocalypse as shown in A Thousand Stars… is totally unfamiliar. It doesn’t conform to the end of the world as we envision it. Or rather, the close shave with the end of the world as Hollywood envisions it. Here, there are no panicked scientists and no scrambling politicians. There’s no Bruce Willis and there’s no Clarke Kent. Instead, there’s calm acceptance and rational reflection. We are accustomed to watching the world’s end while awaiting its very aversion. Here, it is “definitely going to happen”. As audience, we have to come to terms with that idea and exist alongside it. It provides a rare opportunity, by positing the end of all things, to consider their value. It allows us to realise that we’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Not, interestingly enough, the value of the overall. The second divergence from our usual perspective on the end of the world is the very absence of the world as a whole. The tragedy of the apocalypse is so often located in its scale. Vast numbers stretching into the billions are thrown about. As well as thinking about individuals – archetypal alpha males, pretty women and intelligent outsiders – we are invited to think of continents and oceans. A Thousand Stars… refuses to play by those rules. Instead we see only a family – admittedly a sprawling one consisting of a mother, five brothers, a wife, a daughter and a grandson (as well as a great-grandmother and great-grandfather glimpsed as ghosts/hallucinations). Thanks to the absolute sparseness of Jon Bausor’s empty stage (not space), the world – by which I probably mean settings, backgrounds, landscapes or locations – remains unseen, already erased, already forgotten. Instead, all we see are people and things: a tin bath, a window, a train carriage, a dog, pyjamas, Johnson’s shampoo, cheese, marijuana, whiskey. It is these things that we hanker for, that we develop fond nostalgia for. And also family; those that we love are inevitably called to mind by those onstage.

In many ways, then, this is not about the end of all things, but rather the end of one’s own experience of those things. It is clearly set in the present. Fabio Capello is on the back page of the paper heralding the end. (Even in the face of the apocalypse, sports fans must be satisfied.) Those things, therefore, are already familiar to us. A Thousand Stars… invites us to see them as if for the last time. As such, it feels more about the idea – almost a magically realist hypothesis – that, by sheer chance, every individual’s death were to coincide precisely.

As a story, it’s remarkably simple. In the face of the world’s end, a family regroups. In doing so, they achieve reconciliation in the face of a shared fate. One of the brother’s doesn’t make it, dying of cancer days before. His niece opts out, rejecting the trip to Middlesborough. Together they watch the world’s death, staring skywards as the stars become supernovae and consume them.

That story is treated almost in segments, with scenes functioning as interconnected vignettes. There’s a lot left unseen as the narrative hops through both time and space. By virtue of circumventing potential potholes for plausibility, that’s a savvy choice, but it does bring with it the feeling of a spider diagram. You can pretty much see the mind map collected by the collective, drawn up on their shared wallpaper. It’s a list of stuff about which to tug our heartstrings. Perhaps alongside that there’s a niggling frustration with the obviousness of those items: cancer and ice-cream, for example. As much as it’s odd to offer a diagnosis of process based on product (we’d never say, for example, “Stoppard was clearly distracted when he wrote scene two”), it feels as if the three writers have forcibly kept themselves on the same page. There’s no sense of the oddities that come from momentary misunderstandings in collaboration, from the gap between two, or three, minds. Stylistically too, the direct, detached mode of text – jarringly frank and objective – feels the result of a contract between them: an agreement of a voice in order than none of their individual voices override the collaboration. Stephens, Holman and Eldridge are, it seems, writing by a set of rules.

Not that I’m complaining. I grew very fond of the piece’s style and tone, both as a text and in production. Others didn’t and I can understand that. It doesn’t quite feel like drama. We’re used to sleight of hand, to the revelation of the concealed, to reading the tides beneath the text. Try to watch A Thousand Stars… in light of those expectations and it looks immature and flat: “GCSE drama,” as the couple in front of me put it. But it’s far, far cleverer than that. In admitting its failure in the face of an impossible task, it allows us to overlook its staged nature in our own time.

Take, for example, the scene in which cancer-sufferer William Benton (Nigel Cooke) is bathed, very slowly – pretty much in real time – by his mother (Ann Mitchell) and younger brother (Harry McEntire). Cooke stands naked before us, a pained grimace gripping his face, and is gently washed thoroughly, such that no part of him goes unwiped. The scene’s bravado of length allows us to come to terms with the bravado of its content, such that both real and fiction can comfortably co-exist. Where others would succumb to distraction, the real invading the fiction, the honesty of Sean Holmes’ production allows the latter to overpower the former and the result is incredibly moving.

Perhaps there is a worry about the scenario’s role in the directness of the text. In the face of the world’s end, with consequences of little import, the text is often reflexive. It is about coming to terms with the past and about honesty in the moment. That the characters are family often allows them to dispense with civil niceties and speak openly. It’s like they’ve cut the meaningless extras. If something gets said, it needs saying. I suspect that results in too high a level of self-awareness on the part of the characters. They see themselves pretty much as we see them. At one point Harry McEntire’s Philip Benton announces, “These are the things I’ve discovered about the world.” You can’t help but wonder what he hasn’t realised that he’s learnt, what he’s picked up unconsciously, yet the style of the text doesn’t really allow for that. It so concern with the oppositions of the experienced and the never-to-be-experienced. In fact, there’s a nagging concern that such diametric juxtapositions take over: tried vs. achieved, courage vs. cowardice, wasted inertia/hedonism vs. sober alertness/appreciation.

Small matter, though, in an accomplished piece that offers a rare space for rarefied reflection. Yes, there are fine performances, particular from Cooke, McEntire and Pearce Quigley, in a superb production composed of interesting, appropriate decisions in Sean Holmes’ direction and Jon Bausor’s design. Leave the theatre and you’ll find its infiltrated your perception – if you’ve let it work. The bits and pieces that clutter the square, the people on the tube, take on the same quality as objet d’art to be looked on with a strange mixture of fondness and sadness. A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, for all its quaintness, is theatre that makes you re-evaluate, even if that newfound valuation fades with the return of life’s normal pattern. Often it takes the extra-ordinary to make you see afresh.

Photograph: Alistair Muir


One Comment

  1. You might be interested in the film “Last Night” which is also about the end of the world, as seen from street level, with no redemption, or even a hint of what the disaster is, merely the effects it has on ordinary people.

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