The National Theatre's revival of Clifford Odets’ 1938 play Rocket to the Moon puts opportunity in the way of a quietly desperate man and waits. Stunning and ruthless Cleo Singer (Jessica Raine) arrives at the dental practice of Ben Stark (Joseph Millson) and turns his married, humdrum world upside down.

Keeley Hawes stars as Millson's wife, alongside Sebastian Armesto, Tim Steed, Peter Sullivan, and Nicholas Woodeson. The production, which opened on 30 April (previews from 23 March 2011) is directed by Angus Jackson.

Joseph Millson, who won the Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his first musical performance in over a decade in Love Never Dies, tells us about returning to the National and the challenges involved in tackling Odets depression-era play.


I didn’t know Odets well but if you imagine the tone - obviously these are wildly the wrong periods - of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller having a bastard child. That’s kind of how it feels to me. The heat of Tennessee Williams, but the very beautifully painted in characters of Arthur Miller. It’s just wonderful. The story is basically a very quiet, small man. He’s a dentist in New York and has been married 10 years to the character Keeley Hawes plays.

I’ve been cast very against type, which doesn’t happen often these days. He’s not a leading man in a traditional sense even though he’s on stage the whole night. He’s not the protagonist of any scene, he’s a reactor. For the first eighty percent of the play things happen to him and people try to push him around and he lets them. Finally, the worm turns. These days actors are often hired to look and sound like they are. We can all work to manage principles and learn the lines, objectives and just use themselves and just turn up. But I’ve had to squeeze myself into a much smaller body with a smaller range of emotion that I have.

I’m often sitting on stage listening and watching the beautiful work of other actors. He doesn’t drive many of the scenes along. He’s a very good man and would really rather not harm a fly and then ends up hurting everyone by trying to live by those rules.

People label this a mid-life crisis play, it’s also very funny. It’s very hard to pin down. What’s crazy is it’s called Rocket to the Moon, but you never leave a dentists waiting room. This is a bad, fate-tempting thing to say, but when I saw After the Dance last year, I remember thinking "God this could have been written yesterday" and I feel the same about this.

It’s wonderful to be back at the National. I’ve only been there twice before, but they were both extraordinarily good times. I've been lucky enough to work there about once every three years. It feels like the most grown up theatre ever. Especially the technical department, it’s kind of ridiculous. You’ll be in rehearsal and you just happen to throw away a comment about "wouldn’t it be great if we had one of those watches that did this" and then you have a tea break and come back and it’s sitting on the prop table. They are just extraordinary. You just feel so supported. Not to say it’s all smooth sailing.

I think the National is also a very naked place. If the audiences don’t like it, they really stay away. So it’s not that it’s safe at all, but you feel you couldn’t have more resources or be more supported there. It’s lovely.

I’ve never felt any personal stress about success or failure of a piece. I suppose because I’m not a sort of famous actor, per say. I always feel like the writer, director, and producers worries, more than me, and our writer’s dead. And our director seems very confident and the National Theatre, I’m sure, will survive.

You are able to simply feel like you want to serve the audience. I think that’s what is so healthy about the National. There aren’t lots of people breathing down your neck. Even Nicholas Hytner will be in the room and say "Fine. Lovely. Good luck. That all looks great". He doesn’t always do that. If he’s got stuff to say he’ll say it.

I hadn't done a musical for about 12 years before Love Never Dies, so I haven't made the change from a musical to a play in a while. It’s lovely not having to worry about my voice all the time. I spent the year in Love Never Dies having a pint of water the first thing every morning, whether I wanted it or not and trying not to have milk or cheese. So it’s been lovely to just eat what I want.

I feel - even though it’s a really demanding part that I have no idea if I’m doing justice to it - on slightly on safer ground. Even after 350 performances of Love Never Dies, I was still terrified of singing and punishing myself each night. With Rocket to the Moon I kind of know where I am. If it goes terribly one run through or performance, I don’t kill myself. I think, "well I’ll pick it up and sort it out tomorrow". At the Adelphi, when I sang flat or out of time, I just couldn’t sleep for three nights worrying about it.

I tend to go for the jobs that frightens me the most, but I really enjoyed every single performance of Love Never Dies. Had I stayed another year I think that might not have been the case.

Winning the Whatsonstage.com Award meant the world to me. I was going to say I’d never won an award, but I think I did once in 2002. It was an award no one has heard of for a one-man show from a George Elliot novel called The Lifted Veil. I got a letter through the post and the heading was from the Dracula Society. I thought it was a wind up from a friend. It said I had won a prize for gothic performance called the Hamilton Deane Award. Eventually a proper award came through the post. Christopher Lee won it the year before. Not since the Hamilton Deane award have I won anything. So that’s marvellous!

I took myself off to open auditions for musicals when I left drama school and once or twice they called my bluff. I love them, secretly, I adore them. I’d love to do another one, not to mention the straight roles. I want to play Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor and to play Lear, but I’m a bit young for it. I’ve played Hamlet so that’s done. Weirdly, I want to play Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror and Bobby in Company. I had to sing "Being Alive" in a panto once!

My little personal motto is to always try to be a moving target. I think that’s working. If I’ve got a reputation for anything it’s getting the tricky parts. "Oh that’s a tricky part, maybe Joe can do it". Like Judgement at the Almeida the year before last was a most peculiar part. And actually this one in Rocket to the Moon requires a sort of leading act of ability to hold a play all night. But it’s a very odd thing because you cannot, cannot try to take over a scene. Ever. We learned that in rehearsals. If ever a scene is falling flat, it’s quite natural for an actor to pick things up. I’ll just put a burst of energy in here or really influence the scene. It doesn’t work. I have to be a passenger, yet totally awake and alive and I’ve found it really challenging. But yeah, I’m very lucky I’ve got to work with the best people and stretch myself.

I’ve got a sitcom on Channel 4, well sitcom isn’t quite the right thing, called Campus which started on the 5 April. It couldn’t be more different. While I’m doing Clifford Odets by night, I’ll be this disgusting oaf on Channel 4. So it’s all good. I'm also shooting a movie, it sounds very grand, it’s not a very big part. After that I actually have nothing on the cards whatsoever. Which doesn’t scare me too much right now, but I’m sure it might later. At the moment it seems a very good thing.


Rocket to the Moon opened at the NT Lyttelton on 30 April (previews from 23 March 2011 where it continues in rep until 21 June 2011.