Review: Holst: The Music in the Spheres and Payne: The Stars are Fire at Jack Studio Theatre

Returning to live performance for the first time in two years, Arrows & Traps prove they’ve lost none of their ambition as they bring to the stage not one but two inspiring real-life stories. Their new repertory season The Dyer’s Hand consists of two plays, both written and directed by Ross McGregor – the first focusing on the composer of The Planets suite, Gustav Holst, and the second on the groundbreaking astronomer, Cecilia Payne. These two historical figures are connected through Holst’s role as music teacher when Payne was a student at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, but the parallels in their stories go much deeper. Both knew from a young age what they wanted to do, but each had to overcome significant barriers – albeit of different kinds – and tragic loss on their way to career success. And so while each play can and does exist as a self-contained story in its own right, the two also work together in pleasing harmony.

Photo credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

Holst, whose journey is charted in the first play, The Music in the Spheres, grew up in a family of musicians, but ill health prevented him reaching the level of accomplishment in any instrument that his demanding father expected. Instead, he discovered a passion for composing, but struggled to be taken seriously, and spent years working multiple jobs to scrape a living and later support his wife and daughter. One such job was his role as music teacher at the prestigious St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, where he became a mentor to the brilliant but troubled Cecilia Payne. This relationship forms the focal point of Ross McGregor’s play, while flashbacks tell the story of Holst’s life and career.

Leading the (as ever) astoundingly good cast, Toby Wynn-Davies is wonderful as Holst: a kind, unassuming man with a lifelong passion for music, and a keen wit that’s all the more delightful because it’s so unexpected. His exchanges with the teenage Cecilia (Laurel Marks) are a joy to watch, as two great minds go head to head, each ostensibly arguing for their own field but in reality singing very much from the same song sheet. Despite Holst’s eccentricities, the love and respect shown to him by every other character – his wife Isobel (Cornelia Baumann), employer Frances Gray and aunt Nina (both Lucy Ioannou), friend Ralph Vaughan-Williams (Edward Spence) and former student Sydney Bressey (Alex Stevens) – cements our own appreciation both for his talents as a composer and his many virtues as a teacher, a mentor and a man.

Unsurprisingly the soundtrack to the play (sound design by Kristina Kapilin) is provided by Holst and his contemporaries, and this allows for several epic movement sequences that sit very comfortably within an Arrows & Traps production. The final moments, which see an emotional Holst conducting his Jupiter movement while important figures from his life watch on, are truly spine-tingling – not to mention visually stunning – and a fitting conclusion to this story of triumph against the odds.

The second play, The Stars are Fire, leaves behind classical music and strikes a different tone, with sound designer Alistair Lax instantly rooting us in a new time and place. It’s five years later and Cecilia Payne, having completed her studies at Cambridge, takes up a fellowship at Harvard College Observatory. Despite her brilliance and determination, as a woman Payne was forced to fight for decades to earn the respect of her male counterparts, and to receive credit for her discoveries. That struggle is documented in the play, and while much of the scientific theory sailed far over my head, what comes through very powerfully in McGregor’s writing is the emotional journey taken by a young woman trying to find her place in the world, both academically and personally.

Played by Laurel Marks, Cecilia Payne doesn’t have the instant warmth of Gustav Holst – she’s awkward and stubborn, and speaks openly as a teenager in The Music in the Spheres of her disdain for the very concept of friendship. But in this play we see her begin to take her mentor’s advice and open up to others – among them fellow astronomers Adelaide Ames (Lucy Ioannou), Annie Jump Cannon (Cornelia Baumann), Donald Menzel (Edward Spence) and Harlow Shapley (Alex Stevens) – and to discover that letting people into your life can be both rewarding and devastating. Once again, the supporting cast are excellent; Lucy Ioannou in particular is a ray of sunshine as the consistently perky Adelaide Ames, while Cornelia Baumann provides delightfully dry humour as the stern but kind matriarch of the observatory, Annie Jump Cannon. Though this is Payne’s story, as with The Music in the Spheres it’s very much an ensemble piece, with each member of the cast making a vital and memorable contribution.

Photo credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

As always, the production values are exceptionally high, with every element – set and costume design by Odin Corie, lighting by Jonathan Simpson and videography by Douglas Baker – coming together in a visually beautiful piece of work. The use of a gauze screen to separate elements of the story, either by time or place, works very effectively, and the employment of projected silent movie style captions contributes to the cinematic feel of the production as a whole.

In recent years, Arrows & Traps have developed a reputation for shining a light on untold stories. While most of us will at least have heard of Holst, it’s likely (because sexism) that fewer people know the name Cecilia Payne – and in both cases, I knew very little about their lives or what inspired them to their greatest work. In these two plays, Ross McGregor and his deservedly acclaimed company have once again told stories that are funny, emotional and educational, and which push us to want to know more.

Holst: The Music in the Spheres and Payne: The Stars are Fire continue in repertory at the Jack Studio Theatre until 19th February.

Theatre Things received a complimentary ticket to this performance.

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