Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 10 August 2019
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, life moves pretty fast and if you don’t stop and look around once in while you could miss it.” So said Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If only his character Mark in The Starry Messenger had heeded Ferris’ warning.
Mark finds himself middle-aged and teaching astronomy classes at a planetarium which is hardly the space-related career he imagined when a young man. Instead, he is a tweed jacket and waistcoat-wearing tutor and any laughter and jollity during his lessons are what drift through the walls from the neighbouring classroom.
His voice has that soporific tone and pace that bring back shuddering memories of classrooms where time stands still except that writer Kenneth Lonergan has gifted Mark with a dry humour delivered by Broderick in such a deliciously understated way you can’t but admire his comic timing.
Ironically it is the vastness of the universe he feels closest too but it only serves as a reminder of the smallness of his life. At home conversations with his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) are mundane and domestic and he complains that his 15-year-old son isn’t interested in anything other than playing the guitar (badly).
He is plodding, apologetically through life, even Norman (Jim Norton) the cancer patient at death’s door in a parallel plot still has a spark of flirtation. When Angela (Rosalind Eleazar) – Norman’s nurse – steps into Mark’s classroom to ask about lessons for her 9-year-old son she is a spark of colour in the grey.
Angela is separated from her son’s father as he is ‘difficult’ which makes the much older, more sedate and reliable Mark a draw.An affair ensues, Angela offers Mark a fresh ear to stories Anne has presumably heard many times before.
The first half of The Starry Messenger is very funny, particularly the classroom scenes where Mark has to deal with Mrs Pysner (Jenny Galloway) who just can’t seem to grasp the fundamentals and Ian (Sid Sagar) a bright, young serial class-taker who has ‘helpfully’ written a five-page evaluation of Mark’s teaching style.
But the darker leanings of the second half feel underpowered and despite one unexpected plot twist, it is a little underwhelming.
Where the first half feels like it is Broderick’s, it is the second where Angela and Anne have their much needed moments and a chance to remind Mark how painful his foibles can be.
Getting away with it
However, the final line suggests that he has not only got what he wanted but also got away with it, none of which he would have achieved without the intervention of others.
And I’m not sure how I felt about that.
Broderick is a skilled comic performer ably supported by Galloway and Sagar but a notable mention has to go to Eleazar for whom this is only her second stage appearance. She’s definitely someone to look out for.
The Starry Messenger is around 3 hours long with an interval and I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️.
It’s at the Wyndham’s Theatre until August 10.
You might also like to read:
Review: Small Island, National Theatre – a cracking piece of theatre.
Theatre thoughts: Can we move beyond gender-swapping roles and write decent parts for women?
And as I was introduced to James Graham during the interval of The Starry Messenger here’s a review of his play The Angry Brigade from the archives.
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