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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Keeley Hawes and Joseph Millson/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

People smile a lot in the very fine National Theatre revival of Clifford Odets’ Rocket to the Moon, as well you might expect from a play whose central character is a dentist. (“What better way to show off one’s teeth?”) But listen attentively to the text, as director Angus Jackson and his able cast encourage an audience to do, and you hear more talk about “happiness,” or the lack thereof, than anyone this side of Beckett – a writer who, one feels, would be perfectly at home with the landscape of a script in which the clearly culturally savvy characters invoke Charlie Chaplin, Eugene O’Neill and Jascha Heifetz as if they were simply part of one’s natural environment.
In 1938 New York, high art was a given, especially, one assumes, if you wanted a topic of conversation or two to keep patients happy on the way to assuming those pearly whites. But it isn’t long before one clocks the absence of much custom in the dental practice belonging to Joseph Millson’s Ben Stark, whom we encounter on a hot, sultry New York day that anyone familiar with that city in the summer will recognize all too well. In the absence of much actual work, Ben instead fields visits from his wife (Keeley Hawes), father-in-law (Nicholas Woodeson) and an assortment of colleagues – though the question raised is whether he will shut them all out in favor of his full-lipped dental assistant, Cleo (Jessica Raine), who is the most chipper of the bunch. And also, arguably, the least happy.
Odets’ play isn’t often performed, and one can understand why up to a point. There’s no doubt that it helps to be on something of the text’s overtly Jewish wavelength to appreciate the degree to which shtick bumps up against philosophizing, especially in Woodeson’s wonderful performance as an apparently jaunty if aging bon viveur whose world view may be far less celebratory than it at first seems. Coming on to the comely Cleo, with whom he is infatuated, here’s a man who doesn’t speak to his own daughter but who has language to spare if it concerns Cleo. Comparing her first to candy and then to honeydew melon, Woodeson’s Mr Prince sounds one step away from breaking into a chorus of “You’re the Top” from Cole Porter’s 1934 Anything Goes.
One also has to have a taste for aphorisms, some of which are very odd indeed. “This is like living in a subway and never getting off the train,” Ben remarks. It’s to the credit of Anthony Ward’s set (a far more evocative representation of New York than he provided for the dreary West End Breakfast At Tiffany’s a few seasons ago) that the faceless office enclosure begins after a while to resemble a prison. (Fittingly, it looks out on an anonymous Manhattan hotel that, we’re told, is populated by prostitutes and their clients.)
What, then, is the best course of action, caught as these folks are historically between the legacy of the depression and World War II still looming? (German spectators won’t like the aspersions cast in the direction of their country. Then again, the same could be said of the concurrent West End entry Flare Path, which takes place in England during the War itself.) One solution, we’re told, is to catch “a rocket to the moon” – to run at events headlong rather than recoiling from them. But both the play and Millson’s beautiful performance within it settle instead for an acceptance of confusion that feels honest and true if not as theatrically tidy as some might wish.
Speaking of wishes, one could hope to modify some of the women’s accents at the start, TV name Hawes in particular sounding as if she is trying out for a bad regional production of Guys and Dolls rather than occupying a large National Theatre stage. But the entire company eventually settles into the fascinating rhythms of a play poised between certainty and unease, between that aforementioned rocket and the more realistic subway spoken of by Ben. (Small wonder that mention is made late in the second act of the assemblage “living in a nervous time.”) Mr Prince even talks of Ben as one who is “as mixed up as the 20th century,” and one feels our likably conflicted hero is not alone.
As for Cleo, Raine plays this peppy fabulist with a smile capable of igniting all of Broadway, even if her brightness eventually gives way to something far more brooding. As Mr. Prince would be the first to remind us, “Such is life.” This is a wise play, wisely revived.

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