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Review Round-up: Were Critics Over Moon at NT?

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The National Theatre has revived Clifford Odets’ 1938 play Rocket to the Moon, which “puts opportunity in the way of a quietly desperate man and waits.”

Stunning, stockingless, ruthless in her youth, Cleo Singer arrives in Ben Stark’s dental practice and turns his married, humdrum world upside down.

She promises passion, escape, if only he knew how. But Stark is not alone in his frustrated dreams and in those stifling, shared offices there’s rivalry over a woman discovering life, a woman who’s hungry for expression and for love. And she’s no pushover, she’s looking for the real deal.

The production, which opened last night (30 April 2011, previews from 23 March) is directed by Angus Jackson and stars Joseph Millson (Love Never Dies), Keeley Hawes (returning to the stage after BBCs Upstairs Downstairs and Ashes to Ashes and Jessica Raine.

Michael Coveney

"It’s New York in 1938, it’s summer, and it’s very hot, though you wouldn’t know any of those things from Angus Jackson’s torpid production. The American accents are so dreadful you wonder why they didn’t just set the whole thing in Wycombe and be done with it. The dental surgery designed by Anthony Ward has a meaningless corridor taking up space and a battery of lights that are never used. But the play itself is so captivating, and so well written, the callowness of the acting – whoever thought Keeley Hawes could be a tough Jewish wife with so little stage experience; why does Woodeson keep going into bad Groucho impressions? – is just about bearable … Millson is the one actor fully at home in the idiom of the play, and he strikes a full range of emotions while revealing a full set of splendid gnashers, as befits his calling. And Peter Sullivan as another dentist, sharing the surgery, at least hints at the Depression era with his empty appointments book and addiction to Scotch coffee … you’d want to catch it, even though you might ask, ‘Odets, where is thy sting?’”

Michael Billington

"Harold Clurman, who directed the original production, put his finger on the play's central flaw: it starts out as a study of a meek dentist and turns into an account of Cleo's self-awakening. But, although the play is clumsily structured, Odets captures the quality of desperation that haunted Depression-era America … Odets often over-writes, but he creates strong roles that are all avidly seized on in Angus Jackson's production. In a part tailor-made for Marilyn Monroe, Jessica Raine is highly impressive as Cleo: she has exactly the right mix of provocation, native wit as when she claims ‘you know I can't read Shakespeare – the type is too small’ and sense of spiritual generosity. Joseph Millson also captures exactly the shy, goofily smiling tentativeness of the dentist who is afraid of total commitment … Odets may not have been sure what kind of play he was writing, but what finally emerges is a prolonged love letter to Cleo.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"You sometimes hear the expression that nothing could be worse than dental surgery ... This 1938 play about a New York dentist comes close ... The action (action!) takes place in the dentist's waiting room ... The man in the white coat is Ben Stark (Joseph Millson), hen-pecked and generally as wet as mouthwash. His wife is played by Keeley Hawes. She delivers a thoroughly competent performance as the overbearing Belle Stark. The other female part - dingbat dental assistant Cleo Singer - is done with coquettish harm by Jessica Raine ... The trouble is playwright Clifford Odets' glacial plot. I have seen chilled golden syrup move faster off a spoon ... I found myself struggling to discern much point to the play but maybe it is trying to say that marriage is a chore. Not true in my experience, I must say. Mr Odets may also have been hoping to depict the prison of New York city's wage slaves. Fair comment. But I'm not sure you want a whole evening of that. "

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"She may be a familiar face on our television screens, but until now Keeley Hawes, star of Upstairs Downstairs and Ashes to Ashes, has been absent from our stages ... Hers is a decidedly supporting turn in Clifford Odets's mildly underwhelming 1938 drama ... After Hawes's first scene, she is in fact offstage for more than an hour and a half. This is by no means an incident-heavy play, a fact Angus Jackson's air-free production only serves to underline. The action is confined to a very few square metres of the cavernous Lyttelton stage, adding to the general sense of stasis ... Odets takes too long to make us care about the 'will they won't they?' of Ben and Cleo's situation, but care we eventually do, especially when Cleo's character is allowed to deepen from the airhead Jessica Rabbit caricature of the first half. Millson makes Ben a compelling study in henpecked decency and self-forbidden desire, a man who tortures himself by watching the woman of his dreams date others. Yet the always engaging Raine manages to convince us that Cleo's startlingly un-capricious heart belongs in that empty surgery. There's strong support from Nicholas Woodeson as Belle's charismatic father, although he does pull focus from Ben and Cleo's final showdown. More of a slow train to the moon, I'd say."

Libby Purves
The Times

"We’re in a dentist’s office, solid in dingy brown detail down to the vintage chair and sink in the cubicle ... There’s pipe-clenching Ben (Joseph Millson) and his wife, Belle (Keeley Hawes), whose emotional needs he parries with ice-cream soda. There’s a minxy dental assistant, Miss Singer (Jessica Raine) ... Paraphrasing Thoreau, Ben admits that in youth we collect materials for a bridge to the Moon, but later use them to build a shack. He’s not one to attempt the rocket — until Cleo lights the fuse. Like his contemporaries Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller (who admired him), Odets had no fear of lyrical, bruised, passionate expression ... Raine’s Cleo, at first trapped in a Minnie-Mouse airhead helium delivery, grows from vampy fantasist to questing spirit ... Millson makes Ben’s slow awakening a fine art: as for Woodeson, his preposterous geriatric wooing speech almost had me up there accepting. Great American themes weave through: self-definition through success, loss of dreams, rejection of old ways ... It took an hour to win me round. But it did."


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