BATS Theatre
Oct 18-Nov 1 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

THE FIRST of this year’s STAB productions feels a little more like it fits with the ethos of STAB – exciting, experimental and full of potential for further development. Apollo 13 presents a theatrical take on the much chronicled space mission. It does so in a way that attempts to charge the audience with the responsibility for the three astronauts racing against the odds and break the ‘fourth wall’ so as to submerge them fully in the ‘world’ of Mission Control.

The audience is not just in Mission Control – we are Mission Control, each with a console and a particular task. As the note at the beginning of the programme states, from the moment you walk into the theatre “You are now a vital member of the team.” We are invited to talk, volunteer for tasks and respond as directed by the mission flight director, Gene Kranz (Jason Whyte) and his assistant Michael Whallen (Michael Whalley). The woman and child next to me on the night I attended took the invitation to talk a little too literally though, which shows there are some limits to the interaction. When catastrophe strikes on the voyage to the moon, the audience becomes involved in the efforts to ‘get our boys home’.

The astronauts are only glimpsed in the flesh briefly prior to entering the theatre. They say goodbye and climb into their command module. From then on we only see them on small screens in the consoles and a larger one projected above the stage. Ryan O’Kane plays flight commander, Jim Lovell and Rachel Foreman plays Fred Haise in the most hilarious moustache I have seen in a play to date. The third member of their crew is selected from the audience every night. This provides hilarity for the companions of the third astronaut as they speak their lines, but ultimately I found it a little too distracting and it didn’t add enough to the responsibility I felt to compensate.

In terms of script, they don’t need to be quite so concerned with presenting so much factual information to the audience about the American space programme in general – it would be better to involve the audience in the story of the three astronauts from the start. It took some time before I was hooked in emotionally – for about the first half hour I felt like I was in a particularly absorbing museum exhibit. The research behind this production is at times a little too evident – it would be more effective for the audience to be shown, rather than told. There is more than enough background in the (excellently designed) programme for those interested.

I would also like to been involved in the story of the astronauts a little more. Whilst Kranz does deliver an emotional account of how his wife has to inform wives that they are now widows when space missions go wrong, this wasn’t enough. I could have used more interludes like that of Lovell’s long suffering wife, Marilyn (also played by Rachel Foreman) – although this too needs to be developed further. Developing the emotional side of the play represents a further challenge for the company, so that they can fully capitalise on the excellence of the concept and design. Brad Knewstubb and his team should be commended for the design.

However, I understand that there may have been limits in funding and consequently technology that held the company back from plunging the audience fully into participation that makes them feel like the lives of the astronauts are in their hands. Jason Whyte and Michael Whalley already do an excellent job of managing to random audience responses and levels of engagement. My verdict is out on the music – I wasn’t a fan, but my companion was. I thought the composition (by James Milne aka Lawrence of Arabia) was excellent, but was not well incorporated into the show. The scene breaks that were overlaid with music and AV shots of space missions seemed unnecessary as Whyte and Whalley lingered on stage – it seemed like the audience was waiting the interludes out in anticipation for the action to re-commence. The music seemed a little incongruous with the tense environment of the control room. With further funding I would also recommend removing elements of incongruity – the modern head phones at the consoles and that the actors wear; the footage of space missions past 1970 etc stood in tension with the realistic atmosphere they were trying to create.

These criticisms should be understood in the light of wanting to see a good show achieve its obvious potential – and Apollo 13 has potential in abundance. It is hugely entertaining. It is booked out for the rest of its STAB season, but watch out for re-launches in the future.