Writer: Rona Munro
Director: Simon Stokes
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
The Public Reviews Rating:
Set in the 1960’s, at the height of the space race, this is a fictional story about the careers of Renee Coburg and Jo Green both hoping to be chosen for the American Space Programme. Very loosely based on the real lives of Jacqueline Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, and inspired by their attempts to challenge the decision makers on the Space Programme, the play traces their paths to be allowed to compete alongside men, and ultimately against each other, for astronaut training.
The two women are different ages and at very different stages in their careers. The young Jo meets Renee when she is just coming to the attention of selectors. The older Renee is already an acknowledged successful test pilot. Both hold world records for speed, distance and altitude as did the real life women on whom their characters are based. These are not just women’s records but world records for men and women. Despite this, and their successful careers as pilots, the women struggle to be considered seriously.
But this is in no way a play just about sexual inequality in the 1960’s. The author, Rona Monro, deals with many issues of contemporary relevance. The frictions caused between the pioneering pilots testing their skills and risking their lives in air, and the imposition of technical criteria by those professionals on the ground is a common source of tension today. The competing ambitions of national ego versus personal achievements, in this case demonstrated by the space race with the Russians, was clearly on show at the Olympics this summer. The friction caused when age comes up against youth; money versus power; public glory versus personal happiness; mankind’s advancement versus international politics are all touched on while following the extraordinary story of these two women.
Ultimately, the play highlights how once the race is won the game changes. To these highly ambitious, skilled and motivated people there is only one goal – to win. But there is only one winner, only one woman in the astronaut’s chair. The same for nations. Once America lost the race to be the first to put a woman in space to the Russians in 1963, the programme was abandoned. It would be another 20 years before the first American woman went into space.
This play is based on the story of two very remarkable women, dealing with some very human issues that are still relevant today. However, it falls short of completely matching the promise of the source material. The first half is ponderous and meanders slightly and, although the second half picks up a little, it lacks overall pace. Ingrid Lacey is on stage throughout and puts on a great performance as the sassy, but flawed, Renee. The support cast of Eleanor Wyld (Jo), Tom Hodgkins, Amanada Ryan and Jack Sandle all put in good performances, but it is difficult to identify or empathise with any of the characters. There seems to be a lack of tension in the play which, although well written, with some funny lines and sound bites from history, should be more engaging. But it is well worth a visit and an intriguing insight into a piece of unfamiliar, but fascinating history.
Runs until 6th October 2012.
Tags: Amanda Ryan, astronaut, Drum Theatre, Eleanor Wyld, Ingrid Lacey, Jack Sandle, Jacqueline Cochran, Jerrie Cobb, Plymouth, Rona Monro, Simon Stokes, Space Race, The Astronaut’s Chair, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Tom Hodgkins, women astronaut, women in space