Like nothing on Earth

THEATRE The Blue Ball National, Cottesloe
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The Independent Culture
In pre-match interviews in the last couple of weeks, Paul Godfrey has spoken about the sheer incredulity that is our most natural reaction to the idea of man in space, and how difficult it is to portray the experience of space in the theatre. Go to the Cottesloe expecting to find some brilliant solution to the problem, though, something that will evoke some of the astonishment of space, and you're bound to be disappointed. In his new play, The Blue Ball, Godfrey hasn't even attempted to do that: rather, he's come up with a 90-minute piece about the impossibility of writing about space.

The Blue Ball (the title refers to how the Earth looks from space) has what Godfrey has described as a "club sandwich" structure, alternating slices of contemporary action with a mythologised story about the first man in space. In the present day, a young English playwright called Paul (played by Peter Darling) is interviewing astronauts as research for a new play - the kind of device that was irritating even before Martin Amis killed it with overuse. The astronauts insist, in very variable American accents, that they're just ordinary people, and offer unhelpfully sweeping descriptions of what space was like. Some of the play's best moments come from the frustration the playwright suffers - when he asks a woman astronaut what surprised her about space, she answers "Everything", reducing him to a floundering "Can you be more specific?"

These scenes do feel like a kind of con-trick - it's as if, asked "What do you know about this subject?", Godfrey has replied "Nothing": the answer may be true but doesn't get you very far. Still, they are at least more convincing and gripping than the mythological sequences, in which Dexter Fletcher's geographically non-specific spaceman - neither American nor Soviet - struggles to cope with the awe of his fellow human beings by spouting windy pomposities ("How can I separate the thoughts from the sensations and the sensations from the sights and the sights from the thoughts? How will there ever be the words to disentangle them all?"). The cast don't seem to have found a plausible way of speaking these sub- Brechtian generalities, a fact you might blame on the director's lack of sympathy with Godfrey's writing if Godfrey hadn't also directed.

There are moments of wit - although your laughter's fuelled partly by relief at the break in the solemnity - and also of poetry, emphasised by David Sawer's score, with it's self-consciously celestial harp. I suspect that fragments of the play will come back to haunt me in six months' time: possibly the denouement, in which Paul rises from the stage and vanishes through a hole in the ceiling, while the planets of the solar system descend to hover over the audience. Even here, though, the slightly ponderous event itself doesn't match up to the awe-inspiring stage-direction in the script. For all it's skyward aspirations, The Blue Ball remains annoyingly earthbound.

n `The Blue Ball' in rep at the Cottesloe (0171-928 2252)