Review: Pluto at the Cockpit Theatre

Who among us didn’t feel a little bit sad when Pluto lost its planetary status back in 2006? Partly because it messed up the mnemonic we all learnt at school (mine was Some Men Very Easily Make Jam Sandwiches Under No Pressure, which just doesn’t work without the P) but mostly because it just all seemed a bit unnecessarily harsh. Poor old Pluto’s up there minding his own business, doing what he’s always done, and down here on Earth someone’s tweaked a few rules and suddenly he no longer makes the grade. And to add insult to injury, he didn’t even ask to be part of our solar system in the first place.

This is the premise for Moonchild Theatre’s debut show, in which a depressed Pluto (Liam Joseph) struggles to come to terms with his sudden change in status, despite the best efforts of his devoted and kind-hearted moon Charon (Charlotte Price) – and the stripper she “forgot” to cancel (Thomas Lovell) – to cheer him up. Why is there a stripper there, you may ask? Well, because Neptune, Pluto’s next door neighbour, tricked him into having a party to celebrate what he thought was going to be an exciting announcement from NASA. And then didn’t show up. Along with all the other planets.

Photo credit: Dave Bird
Writer and director Callum O’Brien’s idea of presenting Pluto and friends as people with unique personalities, emotions and even sexualities presents plenty of comic opportunities (I particularly enjoyed the shared obsession with Sigourney Weaver). But it also makes their plight a lot easier to relate to, and the play has some really moving moments – largely due to the fact we’re not just talking about planets here. The show was inspired by the ongoing controversy in the USA over transgender bathroom laws, and from this very specific starting point explores the more general theme of individuals being labelled according to someone else’s world – or in this case, solar system – view, and the damaging effects this can have on their mental health and relationships.

The three characters complement each other well, in a story that balances Pluto’s persistent gloom against Charon’s energy and perkiness, and then throws in the Stripper to mix things up. The first outsider to visit in, presumably, a really long time, he brings with him all the prejudices they feared, but also a new, different energy that affects the two friends in contrasting ways and leads the play to a somewhat subdued and ambiguous conclusion.

Perhaps in a nod to their relative youth within Earth’s view of the solar system (Pluto was only discovered in 1930), both Liam Joseph and Charlotte Price bring a childlike energy to their roles – he’s pouting and petulant; she’s full of enthusiasm and a touching innocence – she has, we learn, been rescuing the dogs sent up on test missions by Russia because she couldn’t bear to see them die. They’re a likeable, if dysfunctional, pair with a genuine, irresistible fondness for each other – but heartfelt monologues from both reveal there’s considerably more going on behind the party games and comedy dance moves.

Equally enjoyable is Thomas Lovell’s decidedly un-childlike Stripper, who certainly knows how to make an entrance, and holds nothing back as he camps it up to the max. But this character also has hidden depths, and ultimately it’s he – not Charon – who finds a way to get through to Pluto.

Funny and thought-provoking, Pluto is an exciting debut from Moonchild Theatre. Being an astronomy fan (and having a pre-existing fondness for Pluto) will help but isn’t essential; at heart this is a story about the importance of not letting others’ prejudices define how you see yourself. And that makes it a lot closer to the human experience than its distant setting would suggest.

To find out more about Pluto and Moonchild Theatre, visit moonchildtheatre.co.uk or follow @MoonchildPluto. You can also read Theatre Things’ interview with Liam Joseph to find out more about the show’s inspiration.

Interview: Liam Joseph, PLUTO

Liam Joseph and Callum O’Brien met when they were working Front of House together at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Now co-founders of their own company, Moonchild Theatre, this month they return to London with their acclaimed first production, PLUTO.

PLUTO tells the story of the titular former planet during the period in which he finds out he is no longer a planet,” says Liam, who plays Pluto. “We follow his story as he battles with an identity crisis and his moon Charon tries her best to keep his spirits high. The show is an allegorical examination of LGBT issues that are still rampant in the world today.”

Liam explains that the story of PLUTO was inspired by the now notorious anti-LGBT laws passed in North Carolina last year, which required transgender people to use the restrooms that matched their birth certificate. “On the surface this would seem an unlikely source to inspire a play about the former planet Pluto,” he admits. “However, the story of a governing body dictating the personal identity of others and actively doing harm in the process, upon closer inspection, does in fact bear a remarkable similarity to that of our fallen cosmic comrade. The toilets of North Carolina have been exchanged for the constellations of the night sky. In lieu of the transgender population there is a distant planet battling with his identity.

Photo credit: Dave Bird

“Although our story is not limited specifically to transgender struggles, these ongoing issues – and many like it – helped develop the themes of identity, labelling and loneliness that form the emotional crux of PLUTO. This play is a marriage of two enormous but previously unrelated themes; the LGBTQ+ experience in today’s society and the beautiful, incomprehensible mysteries of space.”

The show was last performed in April at Baron’s Court Theatre, where Millennial London called it “an impressive first production of a new play that captures many important issues in today’s world”. Now returning as part of the Camden Fringe, the show’s undergone some changes: “As we’re now performing as part of a festival run, the show had to be adapted to suit the new working environment,” explains Liam. “With strict get in and get out times, it was necessary for us to cut the run time of the play from eighty minutes to one hour. It used to be bookended by a prologue and epilogue of human characters, to bring the audience back down to earth – literally – but that’s completely gone now.

“It’s much more streamlined and serious, focusing more on the effect of labels and the issues that labels cause in society. And it also opens up a whole new level to the relationship between Pluto and Charon, the icy twins who live in the furthest reaches of the solar system. Completely removed from the solar system, one wants to escape their one-billion-year solitude and the other wants to stay in their ‘safe oasis of anxiety’. Naturally this causes catastrophic tension…”

Despite these changes in structure, the message and spirit of the piece has remained intact: “The show is generally aimed at a millennial/queer audience whose experiences we hope the show manages to capture,” says Liam. “We are a theatre company composed of relatively young individuals and so it was in our interest to create theatre that appealed to us as audience members.

“I think Callum would agree in saying it’s a fable for the millennial; understand that this story is happening now in London as we speak. So many young millennials struggle with being labelled something by ‘words on a page’ and it affects them deeply. We can all do something by accepting each other for who we are: human beings. Simple as that.”

Photo credit: Dave Bird

 

The foundation of Moonchild Theatre came about when the two friends and colleagues realised they’d rather be on the stage than in front of it. “I wanted to be on stage so I asked Callum to write me a play – that’s it!” says Liam. “Over time, we’ve seen PLUTO and ultimately our ethos grow and change, but our aim is to create ‘Now Theatre’, dealing with issues that society’s happy to brush under the rug. We don’t want to solve them, we want people to be aware of them and be able to engage and debate these issues.

“The whole process has been a huge surprise. We only wanted to put a play on and now it’s turned into a successful theatre company with fans and regulars. We were surprised about how many people wanted to see PLUTO at the Baron’s Court and how well it was received by the reviewers.

“All in all, to be able to perform at the King’s Head Theatre, the most prestigious gay theatre in the world, and The Cockpit this summer, we’ve done and achieved a lot more than we’d ever hoped for. The future is ours!”

See PLUTO tonight (1st August) at the King’s Head Theatre or book for the Cockpit Theatre from 14th-17th August.

Interview: Alice McCarthy, Rotterdam

The two years since Rotterdam‘s critically acclaimed debut run at Theatre 503 have been eventful, to say the least. Jon Brittain’s bittersweet comedy about gender and sexuality, directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, not only transferred to Trafalgar Studios and enjoyed a sell-out run in New York; it also won the 2017 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. And this month the fairy tale continues with a further London transfer, this time to the Arts Theatre, where the play will run from 21st June to 15th July.

Rotterdam is a warm, hilarious, appalling and devastating firecracker of a story, with a simple human love story at its heart,” explains Alice McCarthy, an original cast member returning once again to the role of Alice – who’s about to finally come out as a lesbian when her girlfriend announces she wants to start living as a man. As Fiona begins the transition to life as Adrian, Alice is left wondering if this means she’s now straight…

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Alice is joined by Anna Martine Freeman and Ed Eales-White, who also reprise their roles in the play, along with newcomer Ellie Morris, taking over from Jessica Clark as Alice’s free-spirited colleague Lelani. “It’s very exciting, of course, to be able to sit with a character for two years,” says Alice. “Relationships change and deepen, and I am discovering new sides to Alice all the time. Reuniting with the team is always fantastic and means that these long relationships between our characters now make more sense, as we do actually know each other better! Also, Lelani is now played by the lovely Ellie Morris, which has meant new colours and an exciting opportunity to look at all those scenes in a fresh light.”

Jon Brittain wrote Rotterdam after a couple of his friends transitioned in the late 2000s, and he decided to address the absence of transgender stories in pop culture. Despite this, Alice believes what makes the play interesting is that it avoids didacticism: “It in no way seeks to comment on the whole trans-experience but simply tells the story of a group of specific individuals dealing with a unique set of problems. It’s certainly a queer love story, which is of course important, but it is still essentially just a love story. In this way it’s accessible to all and invites the audience to view Alice and Adrian as no different from themselves. I hope that audiences will leave moved, laughed out and feeling like they have got to know four individuals intimately. The best responses are also when we change people a bit!”

And what does she feel is the secret to the play’s success? “I think it’s because Jon has written such specifically human and well-rounded people. There’s an element of the play that allows the audience to become voyeurs, and so they leave feeling close to the characters and wanting to know what happens to them next. A few audience members have come straight up to me and said, ‘What happens to Alice?! We want to know- make a series!'”

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Alice and the team are just back from their sell-out run at 59E59 Theaters in New York as part of the Brits Off-Broadway Festival, where the play’s reception was different but no less enthusiastic. “I think New York audiences are certainly more earnest,” says Alice. “There is an element of taking everything seriously. I think maybe UK audiences are more comfortable with a mix of irreverence and comedy in the tragic, whereas our U.S. audiences have seemed to enjoy the drama side of Rotterdam more. It’s certainly been fascinating to see how plays are so changeable dependent on the temperature of the audience and their expectations. We are lucky though, as our audience’s responses have been just as warm and ecstatic as back home.”

It’s not just audiences who can learn something from this play; Alice has also benefited personally from being a part of the Rotterdam story. “I’ve gained so, so much,” she reveals. “It’s my first lead role after drama school and so on a professional level it’s been my training ground and a huge learning curve. Also, it’s been such a privilege to learn about trans-issues, and for me more specifically, about the partners of transitioning people. I now feel equipped to enter the world as a well-informed trans-ally!”

Book now for Rotterdam at the Arts Theatre from 21st June-15th July.

Review: Rotterdam at Trafalgar Studios

Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam premiered at Theatre 503 in 2015 to critical acclaim, and now gets a well-deserved transfer to Trafalgar Studios. Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, the play introduces us to Alice and Fiona, an English couple living in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. After seven years together, Alice is finally ready to come out to her parents back home, when Fiona announces that she identifies as a man, and wants to begin living as Adrian. Which leaves a shell-shocked Alice questioning whether he’s still the same person she fell in love with – and if she stays with him, does that mean she’s now straight?

Photo credit: Piers Foley
Photo credit: Piers Foley

It’s a fascinating premise and forces both characters and audience to consider the labels we place on ourselves and others. But far from being heavy-going, Rotterdam is a warm and surprisingly funny play – expect to laugh, a lot, often at unexpected moments. Take tissues too, though, because it’s not by any means always an easy ride, and there are some incredibly powerful scenes in Act 2, as the impact of Adrian’s decision begins to be felt by both partners and those around them. And in the intimate setting of Trafalgar Studios, with the audience seated on three sides of Ellan Parry’s set, these emotions feel even more intense than they did first time around. With the actors only inches away – I was sitting so close to Alice as the play began that if I’d wanted to I could have read the email she was nervously drafting to her parents – Rotterdam feels less like a play and more like we’ve stumbled into the couple’s flat to intrude on some very private moments.

The original cast of four transfer with the production. Ed Eales-White provides comic relief, but also a voice of reason, as Alice’s affable ex Josh. It’s impossible not to like Josh, whose support is constant and unconditional, no matter what it costs him. Jessica Clark’s plain-speaking free spirit Lelani is great fun and more than a little bonkers, but with a touching vulnerability we only get to see in the play’s dying moments (and even then her exit line still gets one of the biggest laughs of the night).

Photo credit: Piers Foley
Photo credit: Piers Foley

But the show’s most powerful performances come from Alice McCarthy and Anna Martine. As Alice, McCarthy captures both the humour of the repressed Brit struggling to process emotions and experiences way out of her comfort zone, and the devastation of a lover whose world’s been turned upside down by forces out of her control. Anna Martine plays two roles in one, and her transition from Fiona to Adrian is exquisitely handled; as Alice herself points out at one point, her partner changes just enough to become someone different, but not enough for her to forget the person she knew. It’s a tricky balance to find, but Martine nails it and in doing so, manages to ensure we care just as much about Adrian in Act 2 as we did about Fiona in Act 1.

Aside from one scene in the pub that starts to feel a bit like a lesson in transgender terminology, Brittain doesn’t try to preach, or to tell us who’s right or wrong. Both Alice and Adrian have faults, and both at times handle the situation disastrously – but that’s far more believable than the alternative, and the play is all the more powerful for its honesty, however uncomfortable that honesty may be to watch.

Rotterdam is great entertainment, but it’s far more than that, of course; it’s the launch pad for an important discussion about the fluidity of gender and sexuality, and the nature of relationships in general – not just with lovers, but with friends and family too. (It’s particularly interesting to consider how the story might have been different had the characters been in the UK instead of far from home.) Stunning performances of a fantastic script make this a must-see production.

Rotterdam is at Trafalgar Studios until 27th August.