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.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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.