To what lengths will humans go to be the best, the greatest, the first? Through the means of space travel and speech writing, Barry McStay’s play The First cleverly explores the complexities of human emotion, and ego, in a society obsessed with individual human achievement.
Rose and Simeon are on a spacecraft hurtling towards Mars, excitedly anticipating the prospect of being the first humans on the planet. They discuss the first word they’ll say, the legendary status they’ll receive, and their fascination with being at the forefront of human endeavor.
Meanwhile, back on earth, Alisha and Marcus are at loggerheads over the presidential speeches they’re each trying to write – one for a successful mission and another for disaster. Both struggle with the weighty task but are keen to impress with their writing skills, and with their future careers so dependent on the outcome of the mission, they become wrapped up in the progress of Rose and Simeon out in space.
Both couples are played by Katrina Allen and Daniel Ward with impressive dexterity. The scene changes are quick, and they slip between characters – and accents – with ease.
Running as part of this year’s VAULT Festival, the play is performed beneath the cavernous arches of The Vaults under Waterloo station. The staging is minimal, with the only props being two white tables, but the lighting (designed by Lucía Sánchez Roldán) helps to distinguish between the separate settings – cold blue light for the spaceship and warmer tones for earth. Simple but well executed movements simulate the effects of zero gravity on the spaceship, and allows the actors to portray complex actions like spacewalks with conviction.
Over the course of an hour, the play touches on sexism, racism, politics, love and religion, and both couples clash in the high-pressure environments they’re forced into. Rose and Simeon argue over whether tokenism played a part in their selection for the mission, while Alisha and Marcus clash over politics, writing methods and their respective careers.
In fact, the ceaseless battle between the latter couple does begin to grate as the play goes on. While it eventually builds to a superbly acted crescendo, there’s no depth or complexity to their relationship in the same way there is with Rose and Simeon.
Directed by Fringe First winner Emily Jenkins, The First is a gripping, well-paced production that manages to present the enormity of space travel through the smaller details of human behaviour; the unexpected laughs, petty thoughts and giddy childishness. Rose and Simeon argue over whether ‘touchdown’ or ‘eureka’ is a better first word for their Mars landing, for instance.
It’s an ambitious concept, but ultimately a hopeful and heartwarming production with plenty of tension and tragedy thrown in.
CAST AND CREW
Cast: Katrina Allen and Daniel Ward
Director: Emily Jenkins
Producer: Elizabeth Benbow
Writer: Barry McStay
Movement Director: Mikey Brett
Assistant Director: Olivia Stone
Sound Design: Tingying Dong
Lighting Design: Lucía Sánchez Roldán
Set Design: Delyth Evans
Stage Manager: Dev J. Danzig
Artwork Design: Madison Clare
The First runs until 16th February every night at 7.30pm. It is part of VAULT Festival 2020, an arts festival in venues throughout Waterloo running until 22nd March. You can book your tickets from www.vaultfestival.com.