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Review Round-Ups

Review Round-up: Critics Divided Over Lyric Stars

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The multi-authored A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith this week (12 May 2010, previews from 7 May).

The epic new play - penned by three leading playwrights (and close friends), David Eldridge, Simon Stephens and Robert Holman - is set on a Northumbrian farm, where a mother gathers her sons together as the universe begins to crumble.

Directed by Lyric artistic director Sean Holmes, the cast features Ann Mitchell, Tanya Moodie, Kirsty Bushell, Nigel Cooke, Lisa Diveney, Harry McEntire, Tom Mothersdale, Pearce Quigley, Andrew Sheridan, Rupert Simonian and Alan Williams.

As well as marking a unique collaboration of three acclaimed dramatists, the press night of A Thousand Stars was significant for another reason - it marked the final review from Benedict Nightingale as of chief critic of The Times, a position he has held since 1990. One of the industry's most respected voices, he has been reviewing since the late 1950s over the course of what the Guardian dubbed recently a “monumental career”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Here are characters etched in sharp relief, having the conversations we all know we should have but probably never will. This sense of concentration and valedictory resolution is stamped all the way through Sean Holmes’ superb production … what is most striking is the attempt to 'write' theatre, something not often done since the heyday of Edward Bond and Howard Brenton. The old mother (a magnificent Ann Mitchell) slowly washes her naked eldest son (expressive Nigel Cooke), who is dying of cancer, in a tin bath … John Bausor’s design, a clear thrust stage with a cycloramic sky and a constellation of light bulbs, cleanly incorporates a hospital in Middlesbrough, a bar in Manchester, a park in Stockport, and a house in Twickenham. The show is a great achievement all round, and will surely spark further explorations by these three talented spacemen.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) - “Considering it’s about the impending end of the Universe, A Thousand Stars is less bang than whimper and, at times, melancholy bleat … aside from a story about the murder of a traffic warden who is ticketing abandoned cars, there’s little sense of catastrophe off stage and not much more on stage … The problem may be that it’s written by almost as many dramatists as Labour tried to bring parties into its doomed coalition … At the risk of sounding terminally southern, I wonder if setting their piece on a northumbrian farm isn’t a problem, too … I fear I wished the world would end sooner than it did: a pity for me, too, for this review marks my own end as chief theatre critic of The Times.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (two stars) - “This collaboration between David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens confronts the idea of apocalypse, in a manner that seems, if the paradox is not too much, darkly optimistic … A penny-farthing makes an appearance, but the main accoutrements of apocalypse appear to be cheese, snails, scones and - a little more excitingly - erections ... The text is spangled with lovely touches - starbursts of poetry and toothsome observations - and the play as a whole has an unusually ruminative air … There’s much less precedent for a three-way partnership, though, and it’s resulted here in a piece that, while locally intriguing, lacks narrative energy or even a cogent sense of purpose.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “What touches you is the play's absence of hysteria and its attention to human detail. In one stunning scene, worthy of DH Lawrence, William's 71-year-old mother washes every inch of his pain-racked body as he stands naked in a tin bath. The careful removal of William's prized watch stirs memories of how it was a gift from his grandmother, who herself received it from her Jewish refugee lover. Together, the writers have created less an apocalypse drama than a family saga that explores loveless marriage, fraternal rivalry and the undisclosed hurts of everyday life … Sean Holmes' production, played against Jon Bausor's expansive cyclorama, is impeccably acted. The cast are unforgettable … But the triumph belongs to the writers who, against the odds, have achieved a play full of terminal stoicism and grace.
  • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail (one star) - “There’s a certain kind of writer who likes to wear his miserablism on his sleeve. Here we have three … The writers wisely avoid dwelling on the quantum physics behind this event and stick to the story of five brothers … The most interesting thing is the way time is accelerated and reversed, as a result of the cosmic crinkle. Otherwise, the play is basically a soap opera elevated to the level of mystical experience … The acting is uniformly strong, or at least realistic … Maybe the world will end not with a bang but a whimper, but I doubt the countdown will be this dull.”
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