REVIEW: The First, Pit, Vault Festival, London ✭✭✭

Mark Ludmon reviews The First, a new play by Barry McStay now being presented as part of the Vault Festival 2020 at The Vaults, London.

Vault Festival
Photo: Alessa Davison

The First
Pit, Vault Festival, London
Three stars
Vault Festival Website

In 1969, as Apollo 11 plummeted towards the moon, US President Richard Nixon prepared a speech to pay tribute to the astronauts killed in the lunar landing. In the end, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made “one giant leap for mankind” and returned home safely, but this morbid footnote to history has inspired the new play from Barry McStay who scored a hit at last year’s Vault Festival with his bat-themed love story, Vespertilio.

His latest piece, The First, tells two interlinked stories in the near future around the first manned spacecraft heading to touch down on Mars. Cooped up in close confinement, astronauts Rose and Simeon grow closer as their craft approaches the Red Planet. Just as Mars remains alluringly just out of reach, they maintain a professional distance, with Rose recovering from a break-up with her fiancé and Simeon recalling anonymous gay hook-ups via Grindr. Back on earth, another pair are also developing a bond despite differences as vast as space. Black American conservative Marcus is working with white liberal Scottish scriptwriter Alisha to draft a speech for the president in the event that the Mars mission fails. But, as events take a dramatic turn, both pairs learn about each other, their strengths and their imperfections.

The First review
Photo: Alessa Davison

Through these two intertwining stories, McStay tosses around lots of ideas about race, gender, heroism, politics and human connection but none maintains any real trajectory, giving the piece a lack of focus. However, it features two sets of nicely drawn characters, both played in strong performances by Katrina Allen and Daniel Ward under director Emily Jenkins. In both stories, they display a rapport that suggests the potential for connection even if it seems to be impossible.

With a glowing red disk representing Mars dominating Delyth Evans’s set, the claustrophobic interior of the spacecraft is embodied on stage by the actors under movement director Mikey Brett, with effective sound and lighting design by Tingying Dong and Lucia Sánchez Roldán. While the play struggles to engage with its ideas, it is an ambitious attempt to tell an epic human story.

Running at Vault Festival to 16 February 2020.

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