Pioneer

27 May
Crucible Studio

Pioneer's concertineering of epic science fiction drama into a sputnik-sized stage and cast the size of a British Aerospace crew prompts regular gasps. Taking a rapt Crucible Studio audience from the bottom of the ocean to Mars' orbit, the producers’ curious directive set their characters – the Rozencranz & Guildenstern-like brothers on a space tour across Russia, the increasingly panicked ground crew from an Indian-funded mission to Mars, a Dutch astronaut and her robotic roommate – against a vast backdrop. But the dark matter-like discovery at the heart of this play is that its most powerful component isn’t there at all. It's an absence - three maneuverable, free-standing holes which constitute the play’s scenery.

The MDF-hewn panels stretch and twist and turn to form everything from astronauts’ living quarters to porthole, expressing a playfulness and creativity that sometimes dwarfs the play’s characters. When they do exert a force on Pioneer’s expansive narrative, it’s often by using their comparative tininess against it, such as when Avita Jay’s ambitious flight director Shari Dasgupta uses a 50m rupee comms deck to ring her Dad. It’s a grasp of scale and connectivity reminiscent of sci-fi movie master James Cameron.

But Pioneer’s greatest gasp comes neither from vast sci-fi set piece nor character moment. It happens during a ‘walking and talking’ scene. Wheeled around in a tight circle for the actors to step through while they discuss how to bring isolated astronaut Imke back home, the three panels create the zoetrope-like impression the audience is tracking alongside the characters as they walk down a corridor in a Nostromo-esque space station. It’s a magnificent, cunning illusion. Cheap, expedient and on castors, the three Os are pirouetted around the stage like the boxes magician’s assistants find themselves chopped up into.

Pioneer is, like its namesake, an endeavour. A self-described ‘science play’ created with the help of science funding, it has responsibilities to facts and education, and detours from the tantalising fantasy of Koloarov mirrors and Ballardian airfields full of abandoned spacecraft.

I suppose it’s about where you find your magic in the end. At the Q&A afterwards, University of Sheffield Astrophysicist Si Goodwin’s rhapsodic discussion of theoretical, fantastical non-carbon-based life forms captures the audience just like those MDF holes. The future is a mystery, an O, and wonder is the strongest material for science, art and science plays alike. OOO

Rob Barker
@Tiemachine

Stewart Lee

13 June
Lyceum

Last month saw the return of comedian Stewart Lee to the magnificent backdrop of the Lyceum Theatre. Having recorded his previous live show Carpet Remnant World here, the venue is a favourite haunt of Lee. This time, by his own admission, it’s a work in progress. Some material is tried and tested, while other sections are still in development ahead of the forthcoming fourth series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.

The difficulty of reviewing Lee’s work is that he provides his own continuous review during the show, from offering a nonchalant explanation that his “planned” encore is “OK - not amazing, just OK” to the continuous analysis of the audience’s reaction and whether it meets his expectations. He interrupts himself to explain the true merit of his material or to explain why it was funnier than the audience gave credit for.

Those familiar with Lee’s work will immediately recognise his mastery of the stage. This is something very different from more TV-friendly stand-ups who frequent panel shows and Live at the Apollo. His confidence with his methods is something that no doubt comes with 25 years of stand-up experience. Rather than warming up the crowd, Lee derides the audience for bringing friends with them who are unlikely to understand the show. “Come alone or not at all,” he proclaims to the welcoming audience.

His tried and tested material on nationalism in the first half is a tight set and brilliantly done, a riposte to the Daily Mail’s sentiment that no-one is “having a go at the Islams”. He is able to guide the liberal audience through their discomfort while attempting some mainstream, McIntyre-esque observational comedy.

His 30-minute piece on urine is promising, at one stage leaving the audience uneasy as they decide how much of his onstage breakdown is fully scripted. It will be intriguing to see the final form when the new series of Comedy Vehicle arrives on BBC2.

As this is a warm-up, it doesn’t represent Lee’s tour de force, but it still felt very special and unique in contrast to so many big names on the circuit. For aficionados of comedy, he is definitely on the must-see list. Just remember, if you are in the audience, bring your “A game”.

Iain McDonald