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Pioneer (Edinburgh Fringe)

An assured science-fiction thriller from Curious Directive

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

© Richard Davenport

We tend not to see much science-fiction on stage. It's a genre more readily associated with literature, film or television, where the available scope is much wider. Curious Directive, however, make a strong case for its theatrical viability in Pioneer, their impressively expansive new look at space exploration and human progress.

It's the near future, and following the failure of the first human mission to Mars in 2025 a new crew of scientists are setting off on a one-way trip to colonise the planet, funded by an ageing Indian benefactor. At the same time, however, Dutch botanist Imke already appears to be on the red planet, tending her plants and anxiously awaiting the return of her partner. Meanwhile, back on Earth, two Russian brothers are on a road trip through Siberia, travelling back to the birthplace of space travel.

Curious Directive's plot is ambitiously multi-stranded, setting itself up as something of a thriller. It takes a while for its different layers to align, and even when they do it becomes apparent that there are still some creases in the dramaturgy. But for sheer theatrical and narrative audacity it deserves to be applauded. It is rare, certainly outside of the Traverse, to see something with such reach and such high production values on the Fringe.

Guided by director Jack Lowe and designer Cecilia Carey, Pioneer has a remarkably well-honed aesthetic. The key to convincing sci-fi on stage, it would seem, is simplicity. Projections do a lot of the leg work, while three white, LED-lit units with great big circular windows wheel around the stage to provide the majority of the show's settings, from space pods to earthbound offices.

The only problem is that it is perhaps too slick and stylish, slightly neglecting its human drama as a result. Despite a series of plots hinging on personal relationships, Pioneer has a tendency to feel a little cool and distanced. The same goes for the link it tries to draw between the Fall from the Garden of Eden and the curiosity that leads new pioneers to continue exploring, which has a little too much of the lecture hall about it. But it's a small niggle for a piece which is both intellectually and theatrically assured.

Pioneer runs at Zoo Southside until 25 August.