To blandly go where no man has gone before

Theatre
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The Independent Culture
"IT FASCINATES me," Paul Godfrey says, "that an experience as fundamentally wondrous as our first forays into space could have been rendered mundane in such a short space of time." Five years ago this fascination earned Mr Godfrey a National Theatre commission which launched him into orbit to probe the dark side of Cape Canaveral and Kazakhstan's Star City in a renewed assault on the mysteries of the universe. He now unveils the fruits of this voyage in The Blue Ball, from which it emerges that, like others before him, Mr Godfrey has come back with a load of cobblers.

This piece, which he accur- ately likens to a "club sandwich", approaches space exploration from three separate viewpoints: the Promethean experience of the first astronauts, retrospective comment by an Apollo mission veteran and the findings of a playwright called Paul Godfrey among today's Nasa personnel. As a dramatic character, Godfrey embarks on his interviews by declaring himself a playwright, not a journalist. But such insights as do accrue are journalistic - such as the rueful admission by the Apollo old-timer (Trevor Peacock) that he was paid $30 for his travel expenses to the Moon. There are also bitterly convincing scenes of the astronauts' discontented wives berating their husbands for putting the job first, and bullying them into demanding a raise. Nowhere, it seems, has space exploration become more mundane than among the explorers themselves. But just how true any of this may be is thrown in doubt by moments when Godfrey the character promises, "I won't quote you", when Godfrey the author of The Blue Ball has done exactly that. Maybe the imaginative licence he claims includes the invention of factual reportage.

Why, one character pertinently asks, is sci-fi so much more popular than the greater wonders of science itself? This question takes on added relevance when Godfrey merges American and Russian history in a line-up of nationless action-men waiting to be selected as heroes of mankind by a peremptory controller (a fiercely scowling Nigel Terry) in scenes that could come straight out of Star Trek.

Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Godfrey's production does have something truthful to say: in that it exposes the impotence of human imagination in the face of this subject. Even if the show were staged with supreme technical wizardry, even if Godfrey's alter ego (Peter Darling) came up with better questions than, "What is it like in space?", the experience would still remain incommunicable. What emerges equally from those who have left the Earth and those who only look up at the sky, is that this is an ultimate subject of wonder and desire before which words fail.

Prometheus crops up in a more sinister form in John Constable's adaptation of The Mosquito Coast. Peter Weir's 1986 film did memorable justice to Paul Theroux's fable of Allie Fox, the messianic Massachussetts inventor who leads his family from a doomed America to build an idyllic community in the jungles of Honduras; only to pollute the promised land and descend into madness. David Glass's touring production repeats the story, without narrative or psychological addition; but the staging is another matter. Allie starts creating his perfect world from zero; and theatre, unlike film, has the capacity to make something from nothing. Glass starts off with a down-stage water trough and an array of planks which are progressively assembled into the dinner table on the banana boat, the trees of Geronimo and Allie's inventions, culminating in the altar-like ice-tower which finally explodes in his atheistic Armageddon. Coupled with company movement based on Brazilian martial art, and the ominous lamentations of Derek Houghton's score, the result is an engrossing act of story-telling with strong mythic overtones. Tom Hodgkins fully enlists your sympathy for Allie before his transformation into a monster; there are good performances from Andrea Gascoigne and the tirelessly doubling Michael Vaughan.

The sight of an attractive young couple who are not only eagerly scaling the career ladder but who have also managed to overcome mutual conflict immediately arouses expectations of disaster. This duly strikes Helen and Frazer, in Michael Gow's Sweet Phoebe, when they reluctantly agree to look after a friend's dog. First they get fond of Phoebe; then she goes missing - and their urgent deadlines with interior dcor and advertising clients go up in smoke while they ransack the remotest suburbs of Sydney for the errant hound. What Gow's production delivers is not the trivial comedy which that summary suggests; it is a work of emotional despair and rediscovery, as the couple's fragile nest collapses and they are thrust out into the world they have previously ignored. The structural penalty is that their revelations consist of past-tense narratives of each day's events. But given the performances of Colin Moody and the prodigiously accomplished Cate Blanchett the past is no less dramatic than the present.

`The Blue Ball': Cottesloe, 071-928 2252. `The Mosquito Coast': Young Vic, 071-928 6363. `Sweet Phoebe': Croydon Warehouse, 081-680 4060.

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