The end of the world is nigh. In three weeks' time, the planet will be engulfed by the cosmic equivalent of a geological fault-line. This is no man-made disaster, just a terminal catastrophe for mankind – flash-in-the-pan creatures who can uniquely reflect on their capacity for reflection and now have the honour of knowing that they are going to die not merely individually but as a job lot.
Given this scenario, a dramatist might be tempted to wax portentous, opting to view the unfolding endgame from extreme perspectives – whether political or existential.
Premiered in a beautifully acted and emotionally eloquent production by Sean Holmes, this play by a trio of leading dramatists (David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens) aims to push to a level further than any of the writers could have reached in separation. Yet one of the things they have jointly preserved is a salutary sense of proportion. Some of the best moments here are blessed with the grace of a gently subversive humour. As the characters bicker and battle towards hard-won wisdom, there are no Damascene lightning bolts or grandly definitive summations. The authorial pulling-together would seem to mirror the difficult achievement of the characters who eventually manage to bear witness to the reciprocal significance of their lives without being wise-before-the-event or invulnerable (through drink or pills) to last-minute experience.
A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky focuses on the tortuously dysfunctional Benton clan who gradually converge on the family farm in the North-east. There are five sons who range from Nigel Cooke's pained, 50-year-old William (who, furnishing a deadline-within-a-deadline, is about to die of colon cancer) to Harry McEntire's delectably portrayed Philip, a 14-year-old, near-miraculous afterthought who is just awakening to wet dreams and gay desires that he knows, with a kind of rueful resignation, he will never be able to flesh out. Prompted by family memoirs, this lad has spectral out-of-time encounters with crucial figures from the more distant past. In one of these, he is left literally holding the baby that was his mother, while his maritally abused young grandmother has adulterous sex with a German refugee. Ambiguous like much else in the piece, her actions are both understandable and unfortunate in that they set up a recurrent pattern of maternal neglect.
The play eschews easy sentiment but also has no truck with the sentimentality of cynicism. People do their (limited) best. In a lovely, largely wordless sequence, Ann Mitchell's fiercely repining matriarch tenderly bathes the naked, dying William. There's a heart-twisting moment when Philip, having revealed his sexualilty, places a shy hand of solidarity on the leg of William, who, at 50, is likewise, though for different reasons, a virgin. Philip's new-found nephew, the also adolescent but straight Roy (excellent Rupert Simonian) allows Philip to stroke his cheek and wishes he could let him do more.
The piece continues to expand in your mind and heart afterwards as you enjoy what the characters definingly lack:a future.
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