The Big House, London – until 4 June 2022
When I glanced at the map one looked quite near the other – the underground station (Highbury and Islington) and the venue (The Big House), I mean. But it turned out to be a bit of a mission to get to Mission – or at the very least an expedition. My fault entirely for not looking at the scale on Google Maps but what looked like a two minute walk turned out to be nearer 20. Normally, no problem with that either but because of a cancelled train I feared I wasn’t going to make it on time so hurried and flustered I hotfooted it through Canonbury and sped along the Essex Road. At first overshooting this, to me, new venue (it couldn’t really be designated a theatre) and having to turn back, I made it with just under three minutes to spare.
But I needn’t have concerned myself as nothing actually happened until nearly 20 minutes later (not sure what the hold up was) when the audience was ushered into an upstairs room containing the figure of a young woman lying on a bed. This is the bedroom of Akayah, an addict employed in sex working and fast spiralling out of control of her own life. Visited by a smooth talking American figure who, in reference to his clothing, she dubbed Three Piece, he makes her an offer which will change her life – to become part of the Aurora Mission at NASA. Unlikely as that may seem she has little to lose, accepts and heads for the States; the audience follows her by moving into the main playing area. Here a scrimmed cube dominates the room in and around which the rest of the piece plays out.
Firstly, Akayah and Three Piece visit her old care home, ostensibly to collect her belongings but in reality for an extended scene designed to highlight the literal madness that she is escaping. There is a nightmarish quality to this portion with distinct echoes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and it was somewhat of a relief when the manic shouting and tirade of non sequiturs had played out.
A further barrage of scenes follow, showing Akayah undergoing the training and assessment programme in Florida, a budding friendship with one of the other somewhat irritating interns, a troubled relationship with T – no knowing what that stood for – pregnancy, a fateful tragedy and an extended glimpse of her difficult interactions with her addict birth parents. Through it all weaves a voiceover making announcements about the 259 bus – Kings Cross to Edmonton Green and definitely not in Florida. This is not the only trip happening so it would seem!
It is all defiantly obscure, though it clicks into place eventually, and this is enhanced by having most of the action happening inside the aforementioned cube. The gauze fabric of this blurs the audience’s clear vision and assists in lending a dream like quality to proceedings. It also comes in handy to project onto; Ben Hull’s video designs certainly draw the eye and enhance the narrative. However, the same cube does rather limit the playing space and there is certainly one small section of the audience that gets short changed in terms of the blocking. Unfortunately, this means they miss a lot of the performers’ intensity and commitment which is set on the dial at 11 out of 10 and often leaves you reeling. This is particularly the case with Nkechi Simms. Although Mission is basically an ensemble piece her performance as the damaged Akayah stands out with its emotional commitment and heart breaking fragility.
As I keep finding myself saying lately, I don’t think I was really the target audience for this often overwrought piece. To my way of thinking David Watson’s script was a little too full of speech rhythms and slang which set out to engage with younger audiences but left people like me somewhat baffled. It’s a bit like the charge often levelled at Shakespeare but with the boot on the other foot. In both cases, though, if the actor makes the intention clear then the words themselves don’t have such an alienating effect and this wasn’t always specific enough here. However, I could admire the skill that went into the piece and, given the context in which it was being produced, it is certainly a powerfully realised piece of drama – I’d advise a quick read of this article here if you want to see what I mean by “context”. I’ve saved my final remark for the audience members who were sitting immediately to my right and left; was it really necessary to keep checking your mobile phones quite so often? It’s a distraction to other audience members and disrespects the work that the actors and production team have put in. Please, just don’t!